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U.S. Southern Command Evaluates the role of UAVs in Counter Drug Operations

U.S. agencies operating along with Salvadoran authorities are evaluating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as part of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, a SOUTHCOM component based in Key West and charged with overseeing counter illicit trafficking operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

In May 2009 the task force evaluated how a UAV can be inserted and utilized for its missions. As part of Operation Monitoreo the task force operated a Heron MALE UAV provided by Israel Aerospace Industries’ subsidiary Stark Aerospace and Raytheon. Other regional UAV trials currently planned, include the use of AeroVironment Aqua Wasp and Puma All Environment water-recoverable small, unmanned aircraft during the upcoming Panamax 2009 multinational exercise. The Navy also intends to deploy the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout shipborne vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS to the region later this year. US Special Operations Command will deploy Boeing A-160T helicopters equipped with Forester foliage-penetration radar, attempting to locate drug laboratories through the rain forest canopy.

During the recent evaluation the Heron flew 10 sorties accumulating over 100 flight hours. None of the missions that Heron flew resulted in a drug bust, although the UAV did investigate suspected targets. The aircraft and its support crew occasionally worked cooperatively with manned platforms supporting the same mission. Heron was used to investigate suspected targets spotted by E-2C Hawkeyes operating from the CSL, and in one instance, the UAV even handed over a suspected target to Salvadoran Cessna-337 patrol aircraft for further monitoring.

 

The information recorded during the evaluation will be included in a final assessment and available to SOUTHCOM, Defense Department and other U.S. interagency decision makers, considering the use of UAVs to support future U.S.-led counter drug air operations in the SOUTHCOM area of focus. The Heron employs advanced sensors commonly found in maritime surveillance aircraft including, a multi-mode radar, infrared and electro-optical surveillance payloads, automatic vessel identification system (AIS), and satellite communications datalink. The aircraft can also operate SIGINT equipment to locate and track wireless communications devices. These capabilities are comparable, or even surpass those maintained by the various manned aircraft currently supporting counter drug operations in the region, including the E-2 Hawkeye, P-3 Orion, HC-130 Hercules and E-3 Sentry.

The task force is operating from forward bases in the region, known as ‘cooperative security location’ (CSL) – also known as a forward operating location (FOL) - responsible for overseeing U.S. counter drug air operations in the Central American region. In 2008, working with El Salvador and other regional partners, the CSL directly contributed to the seizure of 80 metric tons of illicit drugs in the Central American region. As of April 24, the CSL has also contributed to 83 metric tons interdiction in 2009 by Joint Interagency Task Force-South, a SOUTHCOM component based in Key West and charged with overseeing counter illicit trafficking operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America.