Waging an Unmanned Hunt

September 2010
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author


The Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) takes off from an airport in El Salvador as part of a cooperative concept evaluation involving UAVs and illegal drug interdiction. The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) innovation sector has been examining the usefulness of air, sea and underwater unmanned craft
in the war against drug trafficking in its area of responsibility.

In the air and at sea, remote-control vehicles stem the illegal narcotics tide.

In the war against illicit drug trafficking, the U.S. Southern Command is employing unmanned weapons that are disrupting the operations of drug-running organizations. By combining remotely controlled air, surface and subsurface vehicles to monitor criminals moving drugs from South America northward, the United States and local law enforcement agencies are shutting down the avenues drug traffickers once dominated. The result has been a mixed blessing. Recent successes in detecting illicit traffickers over international waters and airspace is believed by some counterdrug experts to be one of the reasons criminals are moving their product via land through countries that must deal with the consequences.

Despite these challenges of change, military innovation leaders at the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Miami, believe they are staying the wave of illicit drugs entering the United States. The addition of unmanned systems to its arsenal of surveillance and reconnaissance tools is now causing criminals to act out of their comfort zone. Even if unmanned vehicles are nothing more than a nuisance to them, they are an annoyance that drug runners must deal with and, in some cases, forces them into situations where they are more likely to be caught.

Although the statistics remain a moving target, experts estimate that illegal drugs are being transported primarily via sea—on boats, semisubmersibles and speedboats—and to a lesser degree via aircraft. To combat this assault on all levels, Lt. Col. Jon Ross, USA, command innovation officer, SOUTHCOM, says the types of unmanned vehicles the command is using in its illicit drug interdiction activities have expanded significantly during the past several years. No longer limited to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the fleet now includes unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). This entourage of transportation modes has made monitoring and detecting criminal activity easier, resulting in a significant increase in local law enforcement capturing both drug traffickers and a considerable amount of their illegal cache.

Col. Ross relates that the interest in USVs increased after the USS Cole incident in 2000. As a result of the attack on the ship while docked in Yemen, funding for unmanned systems programs increased. Using electro-optical and infrared equipment, USVs could monitor activity in the area around ships, effectively creating a security perimeter.

Improvements to unmanned systems continued to increase, and in 2007, SOUTHCOM’s innovation office decided to employ the same USV platforms but in a different way. The command was the first to use them to interdict drug trafficking. The command decided to use rigid hull inflatable boats, or RHIBs, that featured electro-optical and infrared radar as well as a communications suite that it operated in its area of responsibility. An exercise with the Dominican Republic tested the equipment and SOUTHCOM’s ability to fuse data from various sources at its groundstations.

The colonel explains that drug interdiction comprises two aspects. The first is detection and monitoring; the second is interdiction and apprehension. While the U.S. Defense Department is the lead agency in many former activities, the latter actions must be coordinated and performed by local law enforcement agencies. To ensure seamless collaboration, SOUTHCOM’s personnel diligently work to create partnerships with each nation in its area of responsibility, Col. Ross notes.

The use of unmanned systems in many of the countries in the region has practical benefits for both the United States and the local economies as well. While the United States has the funding to create the technologies, many of the nations in South America and Central America have an abundance of citizens willing to learn to work with unmanned systems. Lower labor costs reduce the amount of funding required for detection and monitoring, leaving more resources for the interdiction and apprehension aspects of the war by local law enforcement agencies. “This results in more bang for the buck,” the colonel says.

In addition to supporting local economies through sound resource management, using unmanned systems in the region significantly increases the amount of stake-out time around the overall area. Unmanned vehicles can  loiter for hours economically because they are not affected by weather, emotions, sleep requirements or time of day, and they “do not need retirement benefits,” the colonel quips. In addition, these vehicles are particularly beneficial to partner nations that have limited assets. “If we can increase their [partner nations’] capacity and ability to act on their own, that is ultimately the goal,” Col. Ross emphasizes.


During tests of the Fire Scout vertical takeoff and landing UAV onboard the USS McInerney, the aircraft’s operator had the opportunity to use the UAV to track a "go-fast" boat on its way to a drug transfer meeting in the Atlantic Ocean. A U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment aboard the McInerney apprehended the alleged drug traffickers.

Evaluations of the use of UAVs to counter drug operations took place in partnership with El Salvador in late May 2009. These initial tests involved the Heron UAV, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, and proved that unmanned systems can be valuable in detecting criminal activity in the region. In addition, this concept investigation demonstrated that UAVs can be used safely and have a positive real-world impact on some of the operations, the colonel relates. Although the Heron did not identify drug traffickers during this assessment, it was able to identify both biological—whales in the water—and manmade objects on the ground. This data was gathered by the UAV and then pushed back to a joint interagency task force in the United States.

The month-long event, which SOUTHCOM called Project Cazador, also revealed a requirement to increase unmanned systems’ value in the fight against illegal drug activity by extending communications range capabilities, Col. Ross shares. Project Cazador included only line-of-sight communication capabilities, limiting communications to distances of no more than nine nautical miles. Col. Ross and his team concluded that unmanned vehicles would be more valuable assets by installing beyond-line-of-sight communications capabilities, most likely tapping into satellites.

This summer, SOUTHCOM’s innovation office was preparing to brief this extended communications project to the Defense Department’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering. The proposal would allow continued investigation of the use of unmanned systems against asymmetric threats in its region, the colonel reveals. Additional concept evaluations may include connecting three USVs and using the collective data to increase situational awareness of specific targets, he explains.

Testing of the effectiveness of a Fire Scout vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aerial vehicle (VTUAV) and drug interdiction activities earlier this year not only demonstrated its usefulness, but ultimately resulted in the capture of drug traffickers transporting their goods. While undergoing testing and evaluation traveling aboard the USS McInerney, and while working in concert with a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment, the Fire Scout was the eye in the sky tracking a speedboat—called a “go-fast”—suspected of carrying narcotics that the McInerney had acquired on its radar.

After completing the Fire Scout tests, the mission payload operator was granted permission to use the VTUAV to guide the pursuit of the go-fast. Because of its small profile and state-of-the-art optics, the Fire Scout covertly gathered video of the speedboat and fed it to the operator on the ship in real time. Ultimately, the VTUAV captured video of the speedboat meeting a fishing vessel for what appeared to be a refueling and logistics transfer. However, when the McInerney pulled up and the Coast Guard law enforcement officials boarded the boat, they seized approximately 60 kilograms of cocaine and caused the alleged drug traffickers to throw approximately 200 kilograms of narcotics overboard.

Col. Ross points out that, like other nonstate rogue actors, the drug trafficking organizations are not attacking the United States but only seeking to avoid seizures such as these. To do this, the criminals do not confront an adversary’s strength—which in the case of the United States is technology—but rather devolve their organizations to circumvent it; they use low-tech means to sidestep high-tech capabilities.

But the colonel points out that technical superiority is not the only advantage needed in the battle against the drug trade. Information also is a game-changer, and high-speed communications capabilities enable data to travel at the speed of light. Although fast information sharing increases situational awareness, it also benefits adversaries as they use it to become aware of the availability of the latest technologies instantaneously, then either purchase them or create a way to evade them.

According to Col. Ross, the increased loiter times that unmanned systems provide help counteract this particular advantage. First, they enable the United States and its multinational partners to gather monumental amounts of information and free up staff members so they can analyze and collate the data. Second, over time, unmanned systems will provide more capacity for less cost, because the personnel monitoring a sensor also can be trained on other operational tasks, he points out.

The colonel reveals that one of the latest significant threats in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility is the drug lords’ use of self-propelled semisubmersibles (SPSSs) to transport cocaine. These minisubmarines cost between $250,000 and $300,000, which is a small price for drug trafficking organizations with plentiful financial resources. Col. Ross notes that the use of these vehicles may require the United States to spend $100 million on systems to detect them, a return on investment that is unacceptable. However, unmanned systems, although costly to develop and manufacture initially, result in a savings in asset and personnel costs, making unmanned systems a viable option in the final cost-benefit analysis.

Even with the limited number of unmanned systems SOUTHCOM currently is exploring, the command has been significantly successful in affecting how drug trafficking organizations behave. Without free reign in the air or on the sea, these criminals are forced to transport their products over land. This mode of transportation is not only more time-consuming but also more expensive and increases the risk of being apprehended, the colonel explains. Unfortunately, the citizens of nations they now travel through must deal with an unintended consequence of drug running interdiction. It is not the drugs themselves that cause the disturbances, the colonel allows, but rather the crime that surrounds it as these marauders make their way through countrysides. This is one problem that has not yet been resolved.

Although unmanned systems are now somewhat commonplace in operations in southwest Asia, their use for other missions continues to be groundbreaking, and that is what Col. Ross enjoys about his job. In a play on words of an Albert Einstein quote, the colonel says, “If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be innovation…. I’m convinced that innovation happens when it needs to. If you have all the money and all the time in the world, innovation is not the first thing that happens. When you’re in a crisis and you lack money, you have to be innovative in your approaches,” he states.

U.S. Southern Command: www.southcom.mil
Self-propelled semisubmersibles: http://bit.ly/9fEjqX
Heron UAV: http://bit.ly/9lxSSl
Israel Aerospace Industries: www.iai.co.il/22031-en/Homepage.aspx
Fire Scout UAV: http://bit.ly/9xVRu2
Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems: www.as.northropgrumman.com/index.html


Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.