Irish Naval Service at forefront in battle against 'narco' submarines

As the Irish Examiner has documented in recent months, a manpower crisis affecting the naval service has seen a number of vessels unable to go out on patrol.

LÉ William Butler Yeats: Michael O'Sullivan, the executive director of the EU Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre — Narcotics (MAOC-N), said Europe will be 'flying blind' if the Irish Naval Service and the Air Corps do not deploy their ships and their planes to track vessels.

The Irish Naval Service has been warned by a top EU official that it faces a “game-changer” in drug trafficking with the use by cartels of “narco submarines” to transport narcotics into Europe.

Michael O’Sullivan said the first-ever discovery in Europe of semi-submersibles, sent across the Atlantic by South American drug lords, also poses a security threat with the potential the vessels could be used by terrorists to carry and deploy explosives.

As the Irish Examiner has documented in recent months, a manpower crisis affecting the naval service has seen a number of vessels unable to go out on patrol.

Mr O'Sullivan, the executive director of the EU Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre — Narcotics (MAOC-N) said Europe will be “flying blind” if the Irish Naval Service and the Air Corps do not deploy their ships and their planes to track vessels.

MAOC-N is made up of seven EU member states, including Ireland, and targets the transportation of drugs — predominantly cocaine and cannabis — across the Atlantic and into Europe.

Mr O’Sullivan, a former Garda assistant commissioner, has briefed mid- and high-ranking officers in the naval service here on the threats.

“In particular, I talked about the new game-changer — which is the semi-submersibles," he said.  

"When you have guys who put 3.3 tonnes of cocaine into a vessel they built in the Amazon jungle, and sail it across the Atlantic for 22 days with three men on board, and get to the coast of Galicia [Spain] — that’s a game-changer”. 

He was referring to the first-ever seizure of a semi-submersible in Europe. The so-called narco submarine, measuring over 20m long, ran into trouble and the crew decided to sink it. The massive haul of cocaine was intercepted.

“It’s the first time ever one of those vessels has been found on this side of the Atlantic, and that opens up a whole new ball game,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

“People were saying for years it couldn’t be done, that it was physically impossible. This is a worry, a big worry for drug shipments and it has to be a worry for security as well. If you pack the submersibles with explosives, you could set it loose on a cruise ship or into a port.

“It’s quite an alarming development from a security perspective. When organised crime is involved, people pick up on it — people who are motivated by drugs shipments, people who are motivated by terrorism. They see new trends and new ways to move stuff and do things.” 

He said the Irish Naval Service and the Air Corps are “absolutely essential” to stop the threat of drug smuggling in Europe.

“They are the unsung heroes because a lot of the vessels that got taken out was because the Irish Navy and the Air Corps tracked them and provided intelligence to those countries that made the actual seizure.”

Mr O’Sullivan said Irish waters stretch for hundreds of kilometres: “A vessel could be very far south-west of Ireland heading for Europe and the Irish Navy is the first to be in position to pick up on them. If we can’t get an Irish asset out there, we don’t know where they are, so you need that Irish asset. If you don’t have the resources of the Navy we’re lost, because Ireland is so strategically important.”

He said that, despite Covid-19 restrictions, the drugs trade is still booming. MAOC figures show that at least 23 vessels have been intercepted to date this year, resulting in the seizure of 13 tonnes of cocaine and 47 tonnes of hash — with an estimated value of €2 billion.

“You would think with Covid, there would be less drugs and less money and less traffic — well there’s plenty of drugs and vessels. Cartels are thinking Europe is in crisis, they won’t be able to mobilise. At times they have increased the number of ships.”

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