Can a Blimp Curb Drug Trafficking in Latin America? the US Hopes So

Article excerpt

For the billions of dollars it brings in, drug running can be surprisingly low tech.

Although traffickers employ sophisticated submarines and build unique tracking systems, they still throw bundles of cocaine out of small planes, stash drugs in shipping containers, and hide their illegal goods in fishing vessels.

Now the Pentagon is testing its own retrograde tools in the fight against drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean: a blimp tethered to the back of a high-speed catamaran and a remote- controlled plane that is hand launched.

Such is the new fiscal reality for the Pentagon in its fight against drug trafficking after mandatory, across-the-board federal budget cuts went into effect this spring. Those cuts, tied to legislation known as the sequester, forced a $6.1 billion reduction on the Navy and Marine Corps this year, leading it to call home two advanced frigates that were patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.

Those boats, capable of carrying a crew of more than 200 people and integrated technology like an anti-submarine helicopter and torpedoes, helped keep hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine from reaching the US, according to the Military. But now that they are no longer deployed the Navy is testing other ways to detect drug boats.

"We've put a lot of planning into this," says Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker of the Navy's 4th Fleet, which this week is testing the blimp and plane. "We're trying to find cheaper ways to still conduct our mission."

Operation 'hammer'

In military parlance, the blimp is an aerostat, capable of flying as high as 3,000 feet above the boat to which it is moored. The unmanned drone, with an 8.5-foot wingspan and a range of 10 kilometers (6 miles), is launched by being thrown off the back of the boat. Both are equipped with radar, infrared cameras, and sensors.

The blimps have been used successfully elsewhere, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and along the Mexico-US border. But this would be a first in the fight against drug trafficking at sea.

"The technology is old, but they're equipped with the same equipment we have aboard our P-3 aircraft," which are used to search for submarines and other vessels, Mr. Barker says.

However, the blimp and drone are a decided downgrade from the two 450-foot-long Navy frigates that had been patrolling as part of the anti-drug trafficking mission known as Operation Martillo (Spanish for hammer).

The mission, which continues despite the budget constraints, is a surge-style operation launched little more than a year ago. It seeks to cut down the amount of drugs being transported to Central America, both via the Pacific and Caribbean, by bringing together several US agencies with foreign governments.

Last year, authorities say the mission "disrupted" 145,000 kilograms (319,000 pounds) of cocaine, worth an estimated $4 billion in wholesale. (Not all that cocaine was seized. Some of it was lost at sea or carried aboard a boat that turned back to South America after being detected.)

'Effective partnerships'

The White House praised the mission in its 2013 drug policy, released Wednesday, saying that targeting bulk shipments at sea "has the greatest impact on reducing the flow toward the United States, relieves pressure on Central American partner nations, and reduces illicit revenue streams. …