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July 13, 2009 / jeni

Narco-Drones: A Good Idea?

heron droneA while back we considered the emerging monster that is the cocaine submarine. Now a nemesis rears its head: the narco-drone.

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 Israeli-made, though an expanded fleet would be tested and built in the US, subject to congressional approval. (Israel has become a serious provider of drones worldwide; it is also reportedly using them in its Gaza campaigns.)

So far, so logical, right? Using the Heron against the drug subs — which are extremely difficult to detect and interdict — seems like a no-brainer. It would employ some of the same advantages that the subs have for traffickers (endurance, stealth) while avoiding the most controversial elements of current drone usage in places like Pakistan and Gaza — namely, the firing of missiles that sometimes kill civilians as well as militants. SOUTHCOM would use the Heron for surveillance only, and even in the case of crashes (which the Heron has some history of) the UAV would be out over the sea. Also, as PW Singer tells Time: “Drones are best for the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, so this is a smart move… We can’t ask counterdrug crews to keep their eyes open for 20 hours over oceans and mangroves.”

Time also notes that using drones would allow the US to sustain counternarcotics operations even when political winds shift unfavourably.

This summer, for example, the U.S. military has to leave the Manta air base in Ecuador — for decades a prime strategic launching pad for drug-surveillance flights — because the county’s left-wing, anti-U.S. government has refused to renew the lease. Comalapa might be a replacement. But the situation has reminded Southcom that it can no longer take Latin American roosts like Manta for granted — and that long-range drones are one of the best ways of making up for their loss.

So are there any downsides? There have been technical issues with the Heron; presumably, these could be overcome with additional testing and development. JtF points out that in the meantime, surveillance operations over land — say in cultivation areas — could run into similar problems as elsewhere, should drones crash in populated areas and kill civilians.

Perhaps it’s worth worrying about a sort of mission creep: if the drones do prove effective at surveillance in the counternarcotics realm, will there be a temptation to up the ante and equip them with missiles to take out trafficking kingpins or operational hubs? On the surface, this would be problematic given the different legal paradigms that govern the counternarcotics sphere (criminality vs insurgency) as well as the different political context to US operations in the Americas. However, as we often explore in this space, to the extent that criminal and militant become less distinct categories in this area, this idea might prove more tempting.

Finally, while the use of drones would represent a creative use of technology in the realm of counternarcotics, it must be remembered that the drugs trade and its associated ills cannot be rendered harmless by technology alone — and that as ever, non-state groups will adapt to whatever technological means are used against them (for example, by building more advanced submersibles that would be even harder to detect by any means). Narco-drones may be an effective tool, but we should keep in mind the limits of their contributions.

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2 Comments

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  1. Duncan Kinder / Jul 14 2009 13:51

    Trying to stop criminal activity is trying to hit a moving target.

    They have already used remotely controlled Zeppelins to attempt prison breaks as using carrier pigeons to smuggle cell phones into prison.

    So it’s really only a matter of time before the drug gangs have their own drones to zip across borders. Assuming they’re not doing this already….

  2. kiers / Jul 19 2009 15:47

    long before “drones” ALONE eradicate the drug trade (if at all…i personally am doubtful even given fullness of time) I think bio/genetic engineering could be targeted to mutate the coca crops. Imagine, secret spraying of coca crops (using drones maybe) to alter their resistance (weaken obviously) to bugs, or sabotage their ability to be processed/purified in the path toward cocaine. I think this would be the biggest blow.

    Meanwhile, it helps drone sales don’t it.

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