The Covert Boat: Discussion and some Direction in Guerilla Logistics

The success of locally developed submersible and semi-submersible watercraft represents an important technology advancement in the strategic clandestine logistics required for guerilla campaigns. These watercraft, developed originally for narcotics transportation by South American organizations, has produced a technology application beyond narcotics trafficking.

Accomplishing political endstates, sometimes by military means, is the purpose of an insurgent group and successful interdiction of matériel is part of the counter-insurgency strategy in order to deny the insurgent group it’s political victories. So, successful interdiction goes far beyond the jingoistic “keeping our streets safe” trope and goes more to denying dissident groups the political terrain that is possible only through armed resistance. The capability to establish and maintain supply chains by covert watercraft will continue to be an important part of insurgency and through this, will continue innovation. Since non-detection defeats the security regime, development will trend in this direction, and possibly to other counter-measures.

In 1987, the French authorities captured a boat at Brest, France destined for Ireland and carrying 150 tons of munitions for the IRA. Such an interdiction represents not only the loss of money but also the loss of logistics needed to IRA effectuate their political end-states. An operations planner would say this is an High Value Target —– matériel the enemy needs to accomplish a Course of Action. High Value Targets receive priority attention.

Today, a surface boat would not be the first choice for costly and high value cargos. Today, the low-observable, semi-submersible boat or submarine is the vehicle of choice for sensitive, expensive and critical materiel needed for an insurgency. Why risk the investment, and the logistics, when for twice the amount, a suitable covert vessel might be constructed to better ensure delivery of the goods?

Twice the amount sounds inefficient and expensive, but the organization could reuse this craft several times before destruction or interdiction made it unavailable. Depending on group relationships and business savvy, the semi-submersible would be spun-off into a profitable side venture where it would generate revenue for the organization while paying for itself, vertical integration and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), but also be available to the parent organization when needed. Or, sold, or sunk after some short useful life since berthing presents a larger detection surface.

Logistics operations are a type of special operation: operations requiring small groups of highly trained personnel engaging in high-risk, high-payoff activities against a sophisticated adversary. But crewing a such a Low Observable Vessel is a risky proposition. If captured, then these crew could provide valuable intelligence regarding the organization. Since countries like the United's States have legislation criminalizing crewing such vessels with federal prison terms of up to 20 years, with the purpose making recruitment of specialist boat crews difficult, then technological solutions are readily apparent.

The way forward in clandestine logistics is autonomous operation—–“dronifying” the vessel. Here, the need for a crew is eliminated and replaced with technology. A variety of commercial technologies and open source technologies are available and modifiable for this application. Drone systems lend themselves to experimentation and local development more so than vessel fabrication itself and drone systems have a large foundation in both experimenter and components.

The drone operation could be autonomous, remote controlled or partially autonomous. In this, a long-distance sea route is under autonomous control, then, the “last mile” connection is under remote control, or manned operation, for this shortest segment of the route.

Since now the attack surface has been minimized to criminal and intelligence investigations, a question may remain what to do with that now unused crew space? Here are some likely avenues of development —– the space is used for additional cargo or additional fuel.

From a security perspective, additional fuel is the COA, since now the craft might use this additional “at-sea” capability to navigate routes formerly restricted by human crew requirements, taking the vessel outside of normal patrol areas and therefore reducing surveillance attack surface. Additionally fuel allows counter-surveillance segments to be built in the route that mask the start and endpoints.

Additional fuel opens up opportunities for security. Comparatively, the additional cargo space is not as profitable as the successful delivery of that materiel required for group operational success, which is its purpose and thus, critical for survival.

The development of autonomous operation, as it eliminates the need for crew rotation, provides the capability to scale covert boat logistics, and once scaled, other opportunities, like decoy boats as counter-measures, becomes profitable in the risk management sense of the word.


H.I. Sutton, Covert Shores.