U.S. Navy Presents New Weapons against Drug Trafficking

U.S. Navy Presents New Weapons against Drug Trafficking

By Dialogo
May 02, 2013

Drug traffickers that prowl around in the waters of the Caribbean might soon be the target of two new weapons that the U.S Navy is testing to determine if their functionality as future platforms to conduct counter drug operations in the maritime and littoral environments.

These include the TIF-25K Tethered Aerostat blimp, and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Puma, both of which have already proven positive in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but are now being tested by the U.S. Navy to decide if in working together as one system, they can play a leading role in other missions.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, U.S. Navy 4th Fleet commander, stated during a technology demonstration aboard the High Speed Vessel HSV 2 Swift.

Surrounded by journalists, and before stepping aboard the Swift, a grey catamaran that has been docked for more than a week in Key West, at the extreme end of the Florida Peninsula, Harris addressed the recent cuts in the U.S. Military budget. He said that taking advantage of existing technologies to do more with less resources constitutes a way to demonstrate the strong commitment that the U.S. has in the fight against illicit trafficking.

This commitment is headed by the Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S), a component of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). In January 2012, JIATF-S initiated a multinational operation against drug trafficking on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Central America, including efforts and resources from countries in the Western Hemisphere and Europe.

During the first year of Operation Martillo, drug trafficking received heavy blows when the transport of hundreds of tons of cocaine aimed at the U.S. market were interdicted followed by hundreds of arrests. “We know we have to attack the drug supply and demand at the same time. Last year, we were able to confiscate between 152 and 200 metric tons of cocaine in the sea,” he said, adding that over 67% of seizures were done with partner nations, a significant increase.

In addition, Rear Adm. Harris stated that according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there are currently one million less cocaine users in the United States. “Can we do more? Should we do more? The answer to both questions is yes,” he said.

Early in 2013, U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM commander, warned the U.S. Congress that the budget cuts would imply that the frigates USS Gary and USS Thach that were deployed at sea in support of Operation Martillo would cease plowing the Caribbean in search of go-fasts, aircraft and evasive semisubmersibles.

It also became known that the flight hours of P-3 Orion airplanes and surveillance helicopters, which are key during drug interdictions, might be drastically cut as well.

Standing on the Swift’s platform, Rear Adm. Harris received instructions to launch the Puma. “It is very easy,” the flight instructor assured him, while trying to squeeze in a few minutes all his experience with hundreds of launches. Harris held the plane with both hands, took a step to build momentum and launched it with its tip pointing to the blue sky in the Florida Strait.

The U.S. Navy is planning to use the blimp and the UAV together to persistently cover an area much wider than the one covered by the Swift without support from a plane or helicopter. The goal? To catch more drug traffickers with fewer resources.

Unlike the Puma, which is a radio-controlled aircraft with a 2.8-meter wingspan and weighs less than 15 pounds, the TIF-25K Aerostat is a 23-meter long helium-filled balloon.

Tethered to the boat by a fiber optic cable, the impressive white blimp rises over the Swift’s flight deck. In better financial times, surveillance aircraft would land and take off on that same platform. And although at first glance it is a balloon like so many others, the modern radar that spins constantly below the Aerostat’s belly and its powerful built-in camera make it a key tool in detecting maritime targets.

The Raven Vista 50 KW radar considerably widens the range to detect vessels that are beyond the horizon. That “vision” reaches its peak when the balloon is floating at 2,000 feet.

And if the “eyes” of the steerable cannot provide a clear image of the suspicious vessel, the UAV Puma would come into action.

Seeing through the eyes of the Puma also offers a clear advantage for the U.S. Coast Guard personnel on the Swift. “Mainly, what we like is that based on the images we receive, we can mitigate risks,” U.S. Coast Guard First Class Petty Officer Kenneth Christian stated.

The recorded images also provide evidence that might help prevent legal cases from falling apart once they get to court, so that the criminals can be duely punished.

After arriving from a trip to South America, Rear Adm. Harris said that the partner nations in the Western Hemisphere might also benefit from using these tools. “I just arrived from Colombia, one of our strongest partners in the fight against drug trafficking, and I mentioned to them what we are doing because I think it might be useful for them.”

At the end of the day, when journalists and other participants left the demonstration aboard the Swift, the crew started preparing for what will be their last military mission.

In coming days, the Swift will depart Key West on a three-week mission in support of Operation Martillo in Caribbean waters. The proposed “hunting grounds for illicit trafficking” would include Belize, Guatemala and northern Honduras. The catamaran will carry two new weapons against drug traffickers that will continue to be tested, this time in a real scenario.

I welcome everything that is done to help drug control, even though some authorities in the area don't provide facilities for this work. Good for the USA, who are always the ones introducing innovations.
It is obvious that, in order to control and decrease the illicit traffic of drugs and other wrongs that affect Central America, it is necessary to use the surprise effect of new technologies.
I boarded the Swift in the summer of 2011 in the Guatemalan Pacific and it is without a doubt a ship of great efficiency, even when the technologies that we're shown here are the ones on board of the Swift, regardless of its route on air and sea space.
Congratulations on that attempt to minimize, with provable results, the problems affecting the region.