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Navy ships drop out of drug mission

May. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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Aerostar's TIF-25K Aerostat — essentially a tethered blimp that's capable of doing everything from weather research to intelligence work — is prepared by her ground crew for deployment during tests of concept for using the blimp to counter drug smugglers. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)
Aerostar's TIF-25K Aerostat — essentially a tethered blimp that's capable of doing everything from weather research to intelligence work — is prepared by her ground crew for deployment during tests of concept for using the blimp to counter drug smugglers. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)
Members of a Coast Guard law enforcement team gear up to board a suspected drug-running craft during counterdrug operations tests aboard the high speed vessel Swift off Key West, Fla., on April 26. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)
Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, head of 4th Fleet, launches a Puma unmanned aerial vehicle from aboard the high-speed vessel Swift in Key West, Fla., on April 26. Sailors send in Pumas for closer inspection of possible drug smugglers identified via airship. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)
A camera aboard Aerostar's TIF-25K Aerostat airship captures the high-speed vessel Swift from nearly 1,500 feet in the air during tests off Key West, Fla. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)
Aerostar's TIF-25K Aerostat sits above the high-speed vessel Swift pierside in Key West, Fla., on April 26. Swift is operated by Military Sealift Command. (Mark D. Faram/Navy Times)

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ABOARD THE HIGH SPEED VESSEL SWIFT — With three deployments canceled, one cut short, and waning hope of any more funds, it looks like the U.S. is losing a huge component of its anti-drug mission.

Marine Gen. John Kelly, in testimony to Congress in March, issued a stern warning:

“Given the drastic magnitude of cuts being contemplated by the services, the day could soon come when U.S. Southern Command has no assigned [Defense Department] surface assets to conduct detection and monitoring operations,” the head of SOUTHCOM said. “This would not only impact our ability to detect and monitor the illicit transit of drugs towards the United States, but we would also be unable to fully support U.S. and partner nation law enforcement interdiction operations to disrupt this drug flow.”

The high-speed vessel Swift will end its current deployment this month, and with no additional funding, it’s likely Kelly’s warning will become reality.

“As of today, Swift is the only U.S. Navy ship supporting [counterdrug missions] in SOUTHCOM,” said spokesman Jose Ruiz. “As of today, no additional ships are scheduled for deployment.”

In recent memory, Navy officials couldn’t recall the last time a Navy vessel wasn’t involved in counterdrug operations.

“Maritime vessel support to Joint Interagency Task Force-South is not exclusively a U.S. Navy mission,” Ruiz added.

The Coast Guard, he said, is “a significant contributor of assets and manpower to that mission, so it is very possible that there were periods when the Coast Guard assumed 100 percent of that supporting role.”

But these cuts aren’t only Navy. Kelly told Congress that there will be significant impact to the Coast Guard, as well, which he said is expected to “curtail air and surface operations, affecting several missions, including drug interdiction and other law enforcement.”

It remains possible the Navy will name another ship to deploy to 4th Fleet this fiscal year, Ruiz said. Multiple sources confirmed discussions are underway to possibly deploy a frigate to SOUTHCOM.

The Navy has celebrated numerous successes over the past 18 months during the drug interdiction efforts under Operation Martillo, which has included patrols in the Caribbean, the Eastern Pacific and off the coast of Central America. Martillo is Spanish for “hammer,” and the operation has cost drug smugglers more than $3 billion in profits, Kelly told Congress.

“While this success is noteworthy, diminishing assets already place significant limitations on [Joint Interagency Task Force] South’s ability to target the majority of documented drug trafficking events and support Coast Guard interdiction efforts. Sequestration cuts will only intensify this challenge, potentially allowing hundreds of tons of cocaine and other illicit products to flood into our cities.”

Kelly also warned in provided testimony that the U.S. withdrawal of assets might be seen as a lack of commitment and leave a “vacuum” that nations such as China, Russia or Iran may seek to fill. These nations, he said, have already been making diplomatic, military and economic inroads through the region.

But the threat could be even more severe.

Kelly’s predecessor at SOUTHCOM, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, told reporters in March 2012 that the smuggling network could be used to bring in terrorists or weapons.

Armed insurgent groups in South America, Kelly said, rely on drug revenues to fund their fights and use their profits to buy surface-to-air missiles and multimillion-dollar narco subs.

“Utilized by a variety of illicit trafficking groups in the region, fully submersible vessels are capable of transporting up to 10 metric tons of a variety of cargo and have a range capacity of 6,800 nautical miles, a range that could reach Africa,” Kelly said. “In other words, these subs, which are extraordinarily difficult to detect, can travel from the Caribbean coast of Colombia to just about any major city in Florida, Texas or California in 10-12 days.”

Navy officials said that a majority of the narco subs are almost impossible to find.

“Once it gets underway at sea, and it’s fully submersible, you’ve got a hell of a problem,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, SOUTHCOM’s deputy military commander, in a June interview. “Unless you have really tight intelligence on that thing, you’re just going to have to be lucky. It’s a big ocean out there.”

All that adds up to what most officials agree is the best way to deter or interdict illicit traffic of any kind — persistent presence on station.

New technology to cut costs

Sailors in 4th Fleet are testing new technology on older platforms, hoping the combinations could lead to low-cost alternatives to keep the mission going.

Onboard Swift, officials are experimenting with new ways to detect, verify and interdict drug smugglers using an airship, outfitted with high-tech sensors in tandem with a small unmanned aerial vehicle that’s already been battle-tested hunting bad guys in war zones.

Swift is a high-speed ferry modified for military use with the addition of a flight deck and other military capabilities. It’s under lease to Military Sealift Command, a lease that’s due to expire in mid-June.

Testing relatively low-cost but high-tech gear is considered necessary by officials if the Navy’s going to keep up its sustained presence in the region.

Frugality was already on the radar of senior officials as the service replaces its aging frigates, a majority of which will leave the fleet by the end of fiscal 2015.

But the budget crunch has made it even more critical.

“In these constrained environments, with budgets getting tighter and tighter, we need to figure out how to do these same missions with less, while at the same time being as, or maybe even more, effective,” said Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, 4th Fleet commander and SOUTHCOM’s naval component commander.

“Frankly, these platforms aren’t new to anybody, but it’s technology that we’re putting inside them and the application of these assets to a maritime environment, specifically the efforts of the Joint Interagency Task Force to combat the flow of drugs and other contraband by transnational organized crime, that’s new.”

On April 21-26, the Navy loaded out an Aerostat balloon — basically an unmanned blimp with high-tech radars and cameras strapped to the bottom — onboard Swift in Key West, Fla.

Also embarked was the Puma unmanned aerial vehicle, a hand-launched aircraft that’s capable of operating many miles from the ship. Together these technologies can be used to locate and investigate possible drug-smuggling vessels.

As with current counterdrug vessels, a Coast Guard law enforcement team is also embarked on Swift to interdict suspicious vessels.

The initial tests, Harris said, were to see whether the concept worked. And because the tests have been considered positive, Swift departed Key West for a month of counterdrug operations during which the crews will give the Aerostat and the Puma an operational test during real-world missions.

“What we believe we are going to find is not just the high-speed vessel, but other assets will also be able to employ assets like these,” Harris said.

Among potential platforms that could host the Aerostat and Puma team are the littoral combat ship and even other combatants.

Canceled deployments

The U.S. has been fighting the flow of drugs from South America and through Central America for decades.

In recent years, the Navy’s platform of choice for this war has been aging Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, which date from the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite their effectiveness, the frigates are in the twilight of their Navy careers. All 18 frigates now in service will be decommissioned by 2019, with most gone by the end of fiscal year 2015. Four have already been decommissioned this fiscal year, with two more leaving the fleet by Oct. 1. Seven will go in fiscal year 2014 and another seven in 2015.

“I think there’s a belief, over the next three years, at least on paper, [that] we might lose 50 percent [of necessary assets], based on the FFGs going away and the LCS coming online,” Kernan said.

And though Kernan said the LCS could be part of the of counterdrug operations, it is by no means the only option. Employing the Navy’s new crop of joint high speed vessels was already on SOUTHCOM’s radar as one such possibility.

“If it floats, it moves, it has a radar on it, we can employ it,” Kernan told Navy Times last year. Though the JHSV class of vessels was designed to carry cargo and people, he said it possibly could perform counterdrug ops.

It’s hoped the new, lower-cost drug interdiction gear and techniques will prove a viable alternative to help SOUTHCOM keep up the pressure on drug smugglers as it has in the past year and a half.

Along with partner nations, Operation Martillo has led to the seizure or disruption of more than 171 tons of cocaine; 27,747 pounds of marijuana; and $7.4 million in cash while detaining 411 suspects. In addition, more than 200 drug-running assets such as go-fast boats, fishing vessels, semi-submersible vessels, vehicles and aircraft have been seized.

On March 22, the Navy canceled the deployments of the Norfolk, Va.-based frigate Kauffman and the hospital ship Comfort, both of which were slated to deploy to SOUTHCOM.

The next day, the Navy canceled the SOUTHCOM deployments of the San Diego-based frigate Rentz and the fast-attack submarine Jefferson City “due to budget limitations imposed by sequestration.”

The announcement also cut in half the frigate Thatch’s current SOUTHCOM deployment. The ship departed San Diego on Jan. 8 and returned April 11. Frigates normally deploy to SOUTHCOM for six months.

So when Swift returns next month, the number of U.S. Navy surface ships present in the region will drop to zero.

Despite cutbacks, Navy-supported counterdrug detection and monitoring flights out of the forward operating location in Comalapa, El Salvador, will continue in support of Operation Martillo. Personnel with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Patrol Squadron 10, the “Red Lancers,” are serving there now.

“With the reduction in USN ships supporting the operation, we’ll be focusing on understanding the transnational criminal networks better and in fusing the intelligence information from ISR, law enforcement, regional partners and other sources, so that we can conduct proximity patrols closer to the source,” Ruiz said.

“Once illicit shipments come ashore in Central America and get closer to the U.S. border, it takes more resources and funding to interdict them with fewer quantities seized per interdiction — this is because large shipments get broken down into smaller shipments along the way.”

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