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US Intercepts Only 1 of 3 Drug Smugglers It Tracks, Says General

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The Air Force’s MC-12 Liberty surveillance plane, in heavy use in Afghanistan, is one of the scarce assets Southern Command chief Gen. Doug Fraser hopes to see freed up for drug interdiction as the war winds down.

The U.S. military command covering South America intercepts only about a third of the drug shipments and other illegal traffic that it knows about, because it and allied nations simply lack the assets to intercept most of the suspect boats and aircraft that their intelligence identifies, locates, and tracks. That shortfall in interception results in part from a shrinking U.S. Navy and the diversion of Air Force reconnaissance assets to the war zone in Afghanistan. “We intercept about 33 percent of what we know is out there, and that’s just a limitation on the number of assets,” said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, at a breakfast with reporters this morning. And, Fraser admitted, that percentage is “going down… More is getting through.”

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and, after 2014, Afghanistan may free up some aircraft and boats for drug interdiction, Fraser said. But the limitations on what some partner nations can do are more intractable – and any improvement in American capabilities is at the mercy of increasingly tight budgets and a possible sequester.

At sea, Fraser explained, the U.S. Navy is retiring the smaller ships that have traditionally been the mainstay of drug interdiction patrols, the aging and increasingly expensive to operate Perry-class frigates, while their much-delayed replacement, the Littoral Combat Ships, is just beginning to enter service. “We ‘ll see a gap in the numbers of those types of ships,” Fraser said. “So we’re working with the Navy to see what other types of vessels and capability that’s coming back from Iraq might be available,” particularly small craft that have been used for river patrol and offshore patrol in the Gulf. Such boats could boost the U.S. fleet’s own interception capability but also, and perhaps more importantly, some could be transferred to friendly countries that are currently short on assets to intercept drug boats moving through their own territorial waters. (Fraser focused on Navy vessels and did not specifically address the Coast Guard, which does contribute some ships to Southern Command operations).

Similarly, in the air, Fraser is eyeing the Air Force’s MC-12 “Liberty” reconnaissance planes (pictured above). “I do see opportunities for MC-12 [in South America],” he said. “I think it’s a great capacity” — so attractive, in fact, that some nations in the region are converted planes captured from drug traffickers into similar surveillance platforms. Currently, “we’re not getting any of that,” he said, because all the MC-12s are busy in the war zone, but as U.S. forces draw down, he said, “we will put a demand for those systems.”

Southern Command might even get more access to the Air Force’s celebrated “Global Hawk” high-altitude drones. Currently, “we have access to occasional Global Hawk missions,” Fraser said, but most of them are, again, busy over Afghanistan.

That said, Fraser went on, “there’s a lot bigger architecture that needs to be addressed than just having a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle].” Much of the command’s information about smugglers comes from law enforcement sources, not traditional military reconnaissance. Once an illegal shipment is being tracked, many of the shortfalls in interception result from smugglers operating in hard-to-reach areas, where the U.S. cannot pursue without violating foreign airspace but the local authorities lack the resources to go after them.

For example, Fraser said, a small plane can land at a remote dirt airstrip, offload a cargo of drugs – or guns, or other contraband – and be off again in 15 minutes. Most Central and South American air forces don’t have enough aircraft constantly on alert to catch such a plane in the air, nor do their law enforcement agencies have the manpower to be grab them on the ground.

In the near term, “[regional] militaries have been asked by their governments to support law enforcement,” Fraser said. “I don’t think a long term trend of the military being involved in law enforcement is a good thing. [But] countries have seen the necessity to do that as their only available solution.” The U.S. is working with local militaries on not only drug-interdiction skills but also rule of law, respect for civilian authorities, and human rights, but ultimately, Fraser said, “the solution is not a military solution. [Instead, we need to] help build law enforcement capacity, help build judicial capacity.”

Helping friendly nations to secure their own territory and airspace is crucial, Fraser said, holding up the U.S. cooperation with Colombia as one model; and the Administration’s new strategic guidance puts an emphasis on such “building partner capacity” missions as America’s direct involvement in Afghanistan draws down.

[Edited at 4:15 pm]

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