U.S. Turns to Drones to Cut Cost of "War on Drugs" in the Caribbean
April 29, 2013 9:23 AM
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
U.S. Department of Defense
produces the helium-filled floater. Raven Industries prefers the term "
" 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 "
" wide-area scanning sensor from
, 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. (
) 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.
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
, 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
(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.
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 [
]. 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 [
]. 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.
AP (on PhysOrg)
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