Drones Tapped for the Drug War

By Matthew Harwood

The technological arms race in the drug war is ramping up as the United States has begun testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to surveil drug smugglers on land and sea, according to

Recent tests have the Defense Department's Southern Command (Southcom) believing UAVs may be the future of drug interdiction. And as reports, it makes perfect sense:

Indeed, with drones playing an increasing role in U.S. military operations — some 7,000 are in use today, up from just around 100 in the year 2000 — it only stands to reason that drug drones will soon join America's growing stealth arsenal. That's especially true at a time when many in Congress are questioning the cost-effectiveness of a drug war (which has poured more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to Colombia alone this decade) that intercepts tons of narcotics each year but rarely seems to put appreciable dents in eradicating crops like coca, the raw material of cocaine, or reducing the flow of marijuana, coke, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S. If battlefield drones like the Predator can scan and bomb Taliban targets in the mountains of Afghanistan, the logic goes, a similar drone like the Heron should be able to find the "go fast" boats and submarines used by drug cartels in the waters of this hemisphere.... Or, for that matter, clandestine drug-processing labs on land.

Considering that drug cartels' conveyance means have gone hi-tech with the advent and widespread use of self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSSs), the United States' use of UAVs could provide constant surveillance over SPSS routes in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Drones, such as the Heron that reports was used last month to confirm a vessel was a "narco-ship," can stay up in the air for 20 hours without refueling and stream hi-quality video from 15,000 feet to observers and pilots in the control room.

But as Security Management reported in its June cover story, "Drug War's Rough Waters," narcotraffickers are not ones to stop innovating their means and methods. Increased use of drones may be the stimulus they need to invest more heavily in full submersibles that travel deep enough to make surveillance from the air impossible.



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