The Coast Guard and its partners continue to examine the possibility of using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that can patrol the drug transit zones for a day or more at a time, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Tuesday.
The Coast Guard under Schultz’s predecessor, retired Adm. Paul Zukunft, made a push for land-based , long-range UAS that could operate out of Central America to aid in maritime surveillance operations in the Eastern Pacific where drug smugglers out of Columbia move their shipments in bulk to Mexico, or somewhere in Central America, where they are off-loaded and packaged into smaller quantities for smuggling into the U.S., typically through land ports of entry.
The Coast Guard has done some land-based UAS testing, highlighting evaluations in Puerto Rico in 2018 and in Texas in 2019, but now is interested in a proof-of-concept with unmanned systems that can operate for up to 40 hours in the maritime environment.
Testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Schultz compared the Coast Guard’s current challenge in patrolling the Eastern Pacific Ocean to being like “patrolling North America with five police cars. That’s kind of the equivalent time, space, distance challenge down there,” he said in response to a question from Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.).
Maritime patrol aircraft with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability “is a game changer so we’re absolutely interested in that sir,” Schultz said.
Schultz said he visited General Atomics, which has an expanded-wing version of its MQ-9 Predator UAS, to learn more about the aircraft as part of a potential evaluation. He told reporters in a gaggle after the hearing that he’s not endorsing General Atomics but wanted to better understand the capabilities of the enhanced Predator.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a sister agency of the Coast Guard’s within the Department of Homeland Security, operates a small fleet of Predators and a maritime variant of the aircraft, in support of border and maritime security missions. The Coast Guard also supplies pilots for the MQ-9 operations.
Schultz said that U.S. Southern Command is currently doing an operation with CBP with an MQ-9 based out of Panama that can operate between 13 and 15 hours and is “being tremendously successful.” He added that “something that has even longer legs could surveil most of the Eastern Pacific Ocean.”
For the operation out of Panama, Schultz said the MQ-9 is flying “untethered,” meaning the operations aren’t being conducted in conjunction with another surveillance asset.
Southern Command is part of the conversation for the extended-range UAS proof-of-concept, he said.
When such an evaluation might occur has yet to be determined, Schultz said, noting funding and contracting mechanisms have to be determined.
“We have to advance the conversation a bit,” he told reporters, adding later, “I would like to continue to advance this UAS conversation so that it’s a capability for very modest cost that can have high impact.”
In response to a question from Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) about how much of the drug traffic the U.S. is intercepting in the transit zones, Schultz replied that it’s in the 9 to 12 percent range. The Coast Guard is committed to providing four ships to Southern Command to help with the drug interdictions although the actual average is closer to 6.7 vessels, he said.
Asked what it would take to take a more significant bite out of the drug smuggling at sea, Shultz said previous studies have shown the need for at least 23 to 24 cutters on “any given day.”
While most of the drug smuggling at sea is in the Eastern Pacific, about 80 percent, Schultz said there has been a little bit of an uptick in smuggling through the Caribbean Sea given the problems in Venezuela. He also praised the Columbian government’s efforts to eradicate Coca plants, noting that this has helped dent production of cocaine.