US authorities declared they are expanding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or "drones," to track drug trafficking in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sources have confirmed that drones are being deployed to trace drug trafficking movements in the Caribbean due to the inability of previously utilized technologies·to meet surveillance requirements,·reported the Caribbean Media Corporation. For example, the P-3 Orion, a large manned-aircraft used for surveillance, can only operate for ten hours whereas a drone is able to "loiter" for twice as long.
DHS officials stated that drug traffickers in the Caribbean are increasingly turning to semi-submersibles and making night trips with go-fast boats to move narcotics. Statistics from the DHS showed that since 2011, the US has interdicted five semi-submersibles in the region. However, this is only a fraction of the amount believed to be travelling through the Caribbean.
The executive director of air national security operations for DHS Customs and Border Protection said, "It doesn't matter what the target is. It matters that we are able to stay out and look for it," adding that one of the drones, the Guardian, will be mounted with infrared sensors, enabling night flights.
According to the LA Times, the DHS has been testing its drones over the Bahamas for 18 months in preparation for expanding their use to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
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While Homeland Security officials pointed out to the CMC that drones have twice the loiter time of a P-3 Orion, they failed to address another key issue: cost. According to a report by the Economist, a drone can require up to 20 ground crew members in a supporting role, significantly more than a manned aircraft. What's more, the US Coast Guard, for example, can launch helicopters from its boats for surveillance. Drones do not have this luxury, needing the use of runways. Simply expanding the use of piloted aircraft, therefore, could be more cost-effective than the use of drones.
The DHS already uses drones along the US-Mexico border in drug and migrant interdiction functions. To date, the craft have had a minor impact on border security, contributing to the capture of less than two percent of the undocumented migrants apprehended on the US' southwestern border in the 2011 fiscal year.