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U.S. Navy is looking to use drones to cut cost of patrolling seas

The Caribbean is a major route via which cocaine enters the U.S., as well as being a major secondary route for marijuana and other drugs.  A 2004 report by Caribbean local outpost of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime the Caribbean drug trade commands around $5B USD in annual revenue and accounts for around 125-170 of the pure metric tons of cocaine entry North America, or around 50 percent of it.

To date the U.S. has largely relied on Coast Guard and naval patrols to try to spot and intercept the drug smugglers.  Now its going high tech, adopting an armada of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  The initial deployment involves testing an unmanned aerostat (blimp) named "Aerostar" and RQ-20 Puma hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles aboard the High Speed Vessel Swift, a 321-foot vessel in the Fourth fleet.

I. Meet Aerostar

Both Puma and the Aerostar have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now the military is putting them to use in another one of the nation's long-standing and costly wars -- the war on drugs.

North Dakota-based U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contractor Raven Industries produces the helium-filled floater.  Raven Industries prefers the term "Aerostat" to blimp to avoid any sort of trademark conflicts.  It cruises at 2,000 feet.

Unofficially dubbed "The Eye in the Sky" or "The Floating Eye" by servicemen, the DOD has already brought home some of these fliers for use with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in their work policing the Mexican border.

The Navy tests its new Aerostar floater. [Image Source: AP]

The Aerostar is typically will be equipped with the "Kestrel" wide-area scanning sensor from Logos Technologies and the Wescam sensor from L-3 Communications, which provides narrower range multi-imaging.  It has an effective scanning range of about 50 miles at altitude -- nearly ten times the visibility of a the Navy surface craft.

II. Meet Puma

The Puma is produced by AeroVironment, Inc. (AVAV) a Monrovia, Calif.-based UAV maker.  With a range of 9 miles/2 hours it serves a companion role, giving a "God's eye view" of potential targets spotted by Aerostar.  Its electrooptical and infrared cameras offer close-up inspection of targets, while its 13-pound frame makes for easy hand launches.  

Caribbean PUMA
A Puma test launch aboard the Swift [Image Source: AP]

Puma fliers travel between 23 and 52 mph.  The craft is driven by a small propeller, powered by onboard lithium-ion batteries.

Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris tries his hand at a Puma launch [Image Source: AP]

The Puma joins the CBP's Predator drones in patrolling the Caribbean; two of the CBP's ten domestic Predator drones patrol that region.  It also joins Air Force jets and other aircraft, which regularly do flyovers of the region on patrol.

The U.S. Navy has begun testing both fliers last week.  Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of the Navy's 4th Fleet, says this is the first time that UAVs have been used in Caribbean drug patrols.

Not all went smoothly.  The Puma on its first return at a press demo plunged into the ocean and had to be retrieved -- fortunately it floats.  A second launch saw a landing on deck.

III. Sequester Ends Martillo, but UAVs to Continue the "War on Drugs"

The use of drones so closed to the U.S. homeland will doubtless raise concerns about domestic surveillance, particularly given that Florida just passed a law banning most forms of warrantless drone surveillance over its airspace.  However, the Navy drones will be presumably used exclusively over international waters.  And these are small, unarmed drones, unlike the larger Predator drones that the CBP uses -- drones that could potentially be armed.

The Navy is looking to UAVs and smaller, faster craft to handle drug enforcement needs amid budget cuts from the sequester.  Last year The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG 43), USS Gary (FFG 51), and guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47) were deployed in the region on a special mission dubbed Operation Martillo ("martillo" means hammer in Spanish).  

The operation was a relative success -- according to naval sources it seized 160 tons ($4B worth) of cocaine, valued at $12B USD in street resale value; 25,000 pounds of marijuana, worth more than $10M USD on the streets; and $3.5M USD in cash were seized.  

Cocaine seized
The sequester is ending Op. Martillo ("hammer"), a sting that nabbed 160 tons of cocaine.
[Image Source: AP]

However, the sequester effectively ended Martillo and its deployment of larger ships to traffick the Caribbean.  The sequestration is slashing $4B USD from the Navy budget.  A frigate costs only around $25M USD to operate a year [source].  Crew costs can be around $2.1M USD for the complement of 21 officers onboard and around $4.6M USD for the complement of 190 enlisted naval servicemen [source].  Given these relatively low costs it's somewhat unclear why the Navy chose to cut this mission given Martillo's success, but the UAVs will certainly help save costs.

Source: AP (on PhysOrg)

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RE: What a waste of money
By 3DoubleD on 4/29/2013 12:21:45 PM , Rating: 2
If organized crime is making money selling other drugs, then legalize and regulate those drugs and price them out of the market. This is what the Netherlands does.

Look at drug dealing as a business. You have an operating cost (growing, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, "security") and you have your income, which is based on the street price of drugs. The current strategy is like playing "whack-a-mole", hitting them whenever we can legally see them. This drives up their operation costs, but because they have a monopoly on the drug market, they have pricing control and they can absorb easily absorb operation cost increases.

If you provide a legal way to access drugs, in a safe environment (with doctors, counsellors, nurses, ect.) , for a far lower cost, then you take away pricing control. If you want to do crack cocaine, you can go to a clinic and be administered it under safe conditions, but you have to undergo addition counselling as well. You hit organized crime where it hurts, on their bottom line and in their wallets. If you can make the cost of doing business exceed the potential profit, then the incentive for such crime is gone.

The "whack-a-mole" with a hammer technique will never work since there is a continuous demand for these drugs. Cripple the revenue stream, help the addicted, and save money and lives doing it.

Also, legalize marijuana and tax the crap out of it (same with alcohol and tobacco). Use that tax money to pay for the drug abuse programs (including the clinics I mentioned above). Not a single dollar from income tax would be required - no one will be paying for anyone else's high... unless they are getting high themselves.

Alcohol and drugs are a fact of life, people use them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact. Let's not base policy on wishful thinking, let's crush the revenue stream, removing the financial incentive, and help the addicted.

RE: What a waste of money
By BRB29 on 4/29/2013 12:37:10 PM , Rating: 2
It's not that I don't agree with your argument. The problem with that is you are willing to take a short term loss that is not acceptable for our society.

You can argue the Netherlands does and blah blah blah but the Netherlands is not the US. The culture is different, they don't have the same problem, in a different geographical location, and the MUCH LOWER POPULATION. There was not much incentive to take drug to the Netherlands and legalizing made it even less of an incentive.

In the US, drug farm capital of the world is pretty much just a little beyond our Southern borders. We have a massive amount of population that has plenty of money to spend on drugs. I completely agree it would work in Alaska but not densely populated southern parts of US.

RE: What a waste of money
By Geminiman on 4/29/2013 2:50:37 PM , Rating: 2
Apples to apples:

In the years before and after 1971 when drugs were made illegal by the federal government, there was no change in the use of those same drugs. Further, in the 40+ years since those drugs were made illegal there has been absolutely no change in the per-capita rate of use.

But, at the same time we've spent over a trillion dollars trying to enforce the law, and there has been a massive increase in violent crime, and people in jail to the point where we have more people in jail per capita than the Soviet Union even in its hay day.

It is a failure. Legalizing drugs will, even with US only data not result in any increase in drug use, because there was no decrease when they were outlawed.

ERGO you're position is wrong. Legalize them all.

RE: What a waste of money
By 91TTZ on 4/29/2013 4:46:11 PM , Rating: 2
You can argue the Netherlands does and blah blah blah but the Netherlands is not the US.

You reveal your thought process to be incredibly weak in each and every thread in which you participate. Your posts are like pollution on this forum. Please stop posting. Seriously.

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