A task force of U.S. Southern Command wants Predator unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for use in counter-narcotics missions for around-the-clock coverage, a command official said on Tuesday.

Joint Interagency Task Force-South, which is part of SOUTHCOM, has a proposal in front of Congress for MQ-9s, “likely” two of the UAS, that would be forward-based in the task force’s area of responsibility to provide “persistent coverage,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Poulin, director of Operations for SOUTHCOM, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s panel that oversees the Coast Guard.

Poulin said the MQ-9 Predators could be airborne up to 24 hours.

A General Atomics Predator. Photo: General Atomics

“Having overhead reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft is absolutely critical to the detection and monitoring mission and endgame interdiction,” Poulin said during a hearing on the importance of the Coast Guard in drug interdictions in the Western Hemisphere. “About one-third of all cases involve overhead maritime patrol aircraft. The challenge is, maritime patrol aircraft have some limited duration and dwell time. They have to return to base.”

In response to a question from subcommittee Chairman Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) about what the expanded surveillance coverage new land-based UAS would provide JIATF-South, Poulin answered “It will still be a small percentage,” adding that the size of “the playing field has almost doubled.”

Customs and Border Protection, with the help of the Coast Guard, currently operates two Predator UAS that are optimized for maritime missions. Predator UAS are built by General Atomics.

The Coast Guard and JIATF-South are primarily focused on interdicting cocaine at sea, most of which ships out of Colombia into the Eastern Pacific destined for Central America and Mexico, where it is broken down into smaller packages for eventual shipment to the U.S., hidden inside vehicles and cargo as it is smuggled through land ports of entry.

Transnational Criminal Organizations are altering their tactics in how they ship cocaine out of Colombia, going further south and west in the Pacific Ocean to evade detection and capture, while increasing the amount of open ocean U.S. and partner authorities must track.

In FY ’18, the Coast Guard removed 209 metric tons of cocaine from the transit zones and is on track again in FY ’19 to interdict more than 200 tons, Vice Adm. Daniel Abel, the service’s deputy commandant for Operations, told the panel.

Abel said the Coast Guard’s fleet of aging medium endurance cutters are limiting the number of drugs the service can interdict at sea, noting that in 2018, unplanned maintenance on these cutters effectively resulted in the loss of two cutters for operations.

Maloney highlighted that the Coast Guard is “under-resourced,” and is only able to interdict 6 percent of known illegal drug shipments. He said if the service’s medium-endurance cutter assets were recapitalized now, the percentage of interdictions would grow to 20 to 30 percent.