The deal is off
Posted on November 03, 2015 by Chuck Mahnken, Images by U.S. Coast Guard
The U.S. Navy on the hunt for drug smugglers off the coast of El Salvador.
A U.S. Navy aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel hundreds of miles off the coast of El Salvador. A closer look revealed the craft was a self-propelled semi-submersible – a custombuilt watercraft often used to smuggle large amounts of drugs. The U.S. Coast Guard was notified and the vessel was monitored by air as it moved stealthily just beneath the waves. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton was alerted and moved in at full throttle to intercept.
Semi-submersibles have been a popular means of drug trafficking for more than a
decade. At a cost of well over $1 million, these types of vessels are often constructed under jungle canopies, hidden from satellite surveillance. Similar to a submarine but without the ability to fully submerge, most of its hull lies beneath the waterline. Camouflaged in blue paint with just the cockpit and exhaust pipes above water, semi-submersibles are difficult to spot by the human eye. Detection by radar, sonar and infrared systems is nearly impossible, since the vessels are constructed with fiberglass and produce minimal wake.
If captured, a smuggler’s semi-submersible has another devious element in its design. A valve in its hull can be activated to quickly flood the ship. That way, if the mission is compromised, the vessel and its contraband can be sunk to the ocean floor while the crew puts on lifejackets and escapes to the surface.
To capture the vessel—and its illegal cargo headed for the United States—that day in the Pacific, time would be of the essence. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Stratton quickly got into position near the vessel. Its helicopter fired a few warning shots. Then, the cutter’s boarding team deployed an inflatable boat and boarded the semi-submersible. Four individuals inside surrendered and were detained.
U.S. Coast Guard personnel recovered 274 bales of cocaine weighing more than 12,000 pounds packed inside the drug-trafficking vessel. The estimated street value of the drugs was $181 million—the largest bust of its kind by the Coast Guard. And the seizure could’ve been even larger. The crew of Stratton attempted to tow the vessel to shore as evidence, but the semi-submersible began taking on water and sank. Approximately 2,000 pounds of cocaine was left in the SPSS vessel to stabilize it during the towing evolution.
Only constant vigilance and deep resources can slow the steady influx of illegal drugs into the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is a powerful force in this never-ending fight. Its mission is to serve and protect the United States’ maritime borders from all threats, including those posed by drug trafficking organizations. Through advancements in technology and an expanded fleet, the USCG has stepped up its capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
On patrol all over the world, the USCG fleet includes national security cutters, fast response cutters, coastal patrol boats and motor lifeboats. The engines and electronics provided to the Coast Guard are perfectly suited for punishing environments.“Because these vessels often stay at sea for long periods of time, they demand a great deal from their propulsion systems,”says James Young, sr. manager at mtu Large Engine Service.“When the USCG entered into the branch of the Department of Homeland Security, the expectations on their vessels became even higher.”
The ultimate line of defense
Drug-running semi-submersibles are no match for the Coast Guard’s new breed of National Security Cutters. The USCGC Stratton is the third Legend-class cutter to join the Coast Guard fleet. Legend-class cutters are the second longest of all USCG cutters, trailing only research icebreakers. They specialize in long-range, highly challenging missions. At 418 feet long and 4,500 long tons, the demands on these new vessels are unprecedented.
The USCGC Stratton is equipped with one of the most sophisticated and complex propulsion systems available. Built to accommodate a crew of 110 and conduct missions that last 90 days at sea, the ship can reach speeds of more than 30 knots (35 mph). Two high-speed 20-cylinder Series 1163 TB93 mtu engines provide a powerful foundation to the system, delivering 7,400 kW @ 1,350 rpm. “With all the missions they perform, the Coast Guard needed as much space on the ship as possible. The Series 1163 was the only engine out there with the powerto-weight ratio to do the job,” says Young. The multi-million dollar propulsion system also includes a gas turbine, Rolls-Royce controllable pitch propeller system, 3-component gear system and completely automated propulsion control system. The entire system was packaged and integrated by mtu.
Big-time support for long-range missions
As mtu America’s largest marine customer, the U.S. Coast Guard counts on mtu’s Large Engine Service group to make sure that their vessels are in top condition, at all times. Regional support sites are located near the Coast Guard’s west coast home base in Alameda, California and their east coast home base in Charleston, South Carolina. With technicans trained for Series 1163, automation technicians and a local parts inventory, the team is well equipped to support the Coast Guard’s critical missions.
The Coast Guard places a great deal of responsibility on mtu to maintain its engines
and propulsion systems. “They expect exceptional service, genuine parts and world-class technical support 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days of the year, at ports all over the world,” says Young.“We receive a lot of emergency requests in very far off destinations and we’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
The office in Alameda, California is located eight miles away from the USCG base, where three Legendclass cutters are stationed. Most engine service is performed on shore, but there are times that a cutter is serviced at sea as well. The Coast Guard covers a huge area – from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America. Technicians are often sent to distant ports all over the eastern Pacific to perform service. Sometimes, they’re helicoptered to the cutter hundreds of miles offshore.
Typically, a national security cutter such as the USCG Stratton is at sea for three months at a time. It’s on patrol 265 days a year and stationed at port for scheduled and on-scheduled maintenance for the other 100 days – usually a three-month period and a one-month period.
“Running 3,500 hours per engine per year is substantial for any marine engine of this
size. It’s a challenge to maintain these engines in the relatively short periods of time the vessel is docked,” says Young. For example, scheduled 6,000 hour engine maintenance can take about four weeks with four technicians working 50 to 60 hours per week. For example one cylinder head weighs 220 pounds. Massive cranes and complex logistics are just a small part of the equation.
Ready for anything
It takes exceptional resources to keep Coast Guard cutters running smoothly. The warehouse in Alameda is equipped with a large inventory of ValueSpares genuine parts and full arsenal of special tools designed specifically for large mtu engines. Later this year, the group will move from its current warehouse to a new facility nearly five times its size. This additional space will allow mtu to meet the demands of the growing Coast Guard fleet as well as the U.S. Navy.
Just like the Coast Guard, the mtu service group is staffed with an elite team of experts. Most are ex-Coast Guard service technicians, who have amassed years of hands-on experience with National Security Cutter propulsion systems. “Due to their backgrounds, our team has the mindset to go anywhere at any time, along with the professionalism and work ethic you expect from Coast Guard personnel,” says Young. The team sharpens their skills with annual training at mtu headquarters in Friedrichshafen, Germany. All are trained to service Series 1163 engines, along with the massive 11-foot-high Series 8000 engines used by U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships and Joint High Speed Vessels. The combination of expertise, readiness and resources has made the Large Engine Group the perfect partner to help the USCG and U.S. Navy conduct their critical missions.
Making a difference
On August 10, the USCG Stratton returned to California after its four-month patrol of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Stacked on its flight deck was more than 66,500 pounds of pure cocaine valued at more than $1 billion – the largest drug offload in U.S. history. In addition to the $181 million seizure off the coast of El Salvador, the Stratton intercepted another semi-submersible and seven other vessels. It took four hours for members of the Stratton to unload the record-breaking haul.
A few miles away in Alameda, the mtu-Team was feeling immense pride as well. Every bale of pure cocaine unloaded that day had been destined for American streets and neighborhoods. This was yet another moment that reminded the team of the importance of their work. It was a day to reflect on a job well done. But not for long. Because tomorrow, it would be time to go back to work.