"It's an indication of the adaptability and the unlimited resources of these organizations that are moving these drugs and have the potential to move anything," Vice Adm. Charles Ray, head of Pacific Area Command, told reporters at a news conference Monday.
Bertholf last tracked down a drug sub in August, just weeks after the cutter Stratton picked up its second unicorn of that patrol. A bust by the cutter Northland in January made four, just as Alameda, California-based Bertholf was heading out for another deployment.
Fiscal 2015 saw 191 tons of cocaine seized and more than 700 smugglers detained, he said, with 100 tons and 270 smugglers racked up so far this fiscal year.
"What we've seen in the past couple of years as we've concentrated our resources is we're putting pressure on them," Ray said.
"We've increased our intelligence capabilities and we understand the organizations better than we did just a few years ago," he added, but with resources stretched thin, they have to make decisions about which pursuits will come with the biggest hauls.
In general, they head from the coast of South America up to Central America or the southern coast of Mexico, where the drugs are driven across the border to America, Brzuska said.
"It's pretty amazing — they have access to the same type of off-the-shelf GPS products that if you had a boat in Alameda and you were to sail down to San Diego," Ray said.
The cutter launched two small boat teams and a helicopter March 3. Video of the bust shows the first boat team boarding the sub at gunpoint, then a second boat coming alongside while the sub's crew stood on top with their hands raised.
It's a dangerous operation from start to finish, Collins said, even if the crew surrenders. Once inside, the boarding team found a loaded gun in the cockpit, according to a Coast Guard release.
"Semi-submersibles are extremely un-seaworthy," she said. "We treat each one as if it were a sinking vessel until we can complete our own safety evaluation."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.