June 09, 2009
Southcom, Drones and Counternarcotics
By Abigail Poe
Reprinted with permission from Just the Facts
Over the past month, the United States Southern Command, in collaboration with the Salvadoran military and civil aviation officials, has been evaluating the suitability of using unmanned aircraft, or drones, for counternarcotics operations throughout Latin America. As drug traffickers increasingly use semi-submersible submarines to transport cocaine from ports like Colombia to the United States, it has become increasingly difficult for manned aircraft to remain in the air long enough (due to fuel and pilot safety issues) to confirm the identity and location of the semi-submersibles and other drug-running boats. The use of drones, such as the Heron, appears to be how SOUTHCOM proposes to respond to this problem.
The Heron is "an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) designed for medium altitude, long endurance air operations and capable of sustained flight for up to 20 hours without the need for aerial refueling when configured for counter illicit trafficking detection missions," according to SOUTHCOM. The Heron carries a sophisticated sensor package that includes "advanced flight, navigation and communications systems and a mix of multi-mode radar, infrared and electro-optical surveillance capabilities."
In addition to being a potential option for improving maritime interdiction, Time Magazine also suggests that the United States' increasing interest in using drones for its fight against drugs could be a result of the sentiment that after Ecuador did not renew the lease on the United States' Forward Operating Location (FOL) at the Manta air base, SOUTHCOM "can no longer take Latin America roosts like Manta for granted - and that long-range drones are one of the best ways of making up for their loss." Thereby suggesting that the instead of relying on remaining FOLs for its counternarcotics missions in the future, such as the FOL in Comalapa, El Salvador, the United States may begin to use drones capable of flying long distances for its counterdrug missions.
The United States is increasing the use of drones in its military strategy throughout the world, in an effort to lower the cost of war - even though some critics would argue that the use of drones is ineffective and counterproductive and therefore a waste of money. This is taking place most notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where drones are used to identify and take out top al-Qaeda leaders, an operation which has received much criticism. Pakistani officials claim, according to Time Magazine, that the majority of strikes miss their targets and kill innocent civilians. And the Time article continues, citing a Pakistani daily report which quantifies that of the 60 strikes since 2006, only 14 al-Qaeda leaders have been killed, in comparison to 687 civilian deaths.
While the use of drones in counternarcotics operations will not result in the bombing of innocent civilians, as they are equipped for surveillance and not bombing or direct interdiction, it does seem that their use is not free of problems - and complaints about the Heron have included being unresponsive at times to their human operators on the ground, and crashes due to human error or other technical problems. If SOUTHCOM uses the Heron primarily for maritime surveillance at the onset of the program, crashes will not be of major concern - other than large amounts of money wasted on a drone now at the bottom of the ocean. However, the future could include using drones for surveillance over populated areas - such as the regions in Colombia where coca is grown - which could result in the loss of innocent lives if these unmanned drones do crash or decide not to listen to their "human commanders."
The U.S. Congress would have to authorize the use of a larger drug-drone fleet for this program to become a major part of SOUTHCOM's counternarcotics mission. However, the Time article notes that the money saved by not having to use as many manned vessels "will be hard to "the cost savings Washington has found with drones in real war will be hard to resist in the drug war." Perhaps the money saved in interdiction could be redirected to more economic and social aid to the region, as part of an effort to reorient the United States' counternarcotics program toward better civilian governance and development rather than military action.