A High-Tech Game of Hide-and-Seek

A High-Tech Game of Hide-and-Seek
Posted by FoM on September 13, 1999 at 12:47:28 PT
Military ships patrol for possible drug runners 
Source: Florida Times-Union
ABOARD THE USS BOONE There is another front in the war on drugs, fought hundreds of miles from American soil.The U.S. military, including ships from Mayport Naval Station, plays high-tech hide-and-seek with hundreds of ships that try to smuggle cocaine and marijuana through international waters to major American ports.
''This affects our everyday lives,'' said Cmdr. David Costa, commanding officer of the Mayport-based USS Boone, which returned this month from four months of counter-drug operations in the Caribbean. ''Anything we stop or seize is headed for our homes and our families.''The American counter-drug presence on the high seas is operated by both the Coast Guard and the Joint Interagency Task Force, an amalgam of government entities such as the Navy, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs Service.Military forces were not engaged in counter-drug operations before the late 1980s because of laws prohibiting them from being involved in domestic law enforcement. Operations were handled in different ways by the DEA, Coast Guard and Customs Service.Congress changed that in 1989, designating the Department of Defense as the ''lead agency for the detection and monitoring of aerial and maritime trafficking.''The joint task force was formed in 1994 to coordinate resources among the agencies. It manages high-traffic areas, such as shipping lanes in the Caribbean.The task force supervises every step before a suspect ship is boarded, from intelligence-gathering to ship deployment. When patrols prepare to board a suspect ship, control of the mission shifts to the Coast Guard, which makes the final decision on which vessels to board and the rules of engagement for each boarding. Those boardings are the heart of the arrest-and-seizure part of counter-drug operations. It begins when a ship like the USS Boone, a guided-missile frigate, uses a variety of resources to scour its patrol area for possible drug runners. In addition to ship-based sonar and radar, ships often have air reconnaissance from a SH-60B Seahawk helicopter or P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft.Though the search tactics are similar to those in traditional naval operations, the prey is much smaller and harder to find than an opposing warship. Called ''go-fasts'' by the sailors, the targets are often small speedboats with outboard motors. They are frequently no longer than 40 feet - less than a tenth the size of Boone.When a helicopter locates a target, its orders depend on the situation. Usually, its task is to make it possible for the Navy ship to intercept the speedboat. At times, pilots said, that means flying low enough and close enough to scare their prey motionless - sometimes close enough to read the boat's name and the crew's faces.''First, we let them see us and see what that does,'' said Lt. Neil Brennan, a helicopter pilot with the HSL-48 Vipers detachment that cruised on the Boone this summer. ''If all else fails, we just start circling over his head.''When the ship arrives, crew members ask a standard set of questions about the suspect ship, its cargo, its home and its destination, which are called ''Right of Approach'' questions. At that stage, diplomacy is the key, sailors said.''It's just like a police officer dealing with someone they've pulled over,'' said Lt. j.g. Daniel Ward, a member of the Coast Guard detachment that sailed with the Boone. ''We don't start out by knocking down doors.''Members of the boarding party speak different languages - especially Spanish - and are specially trained to deal with the touchy diplomacy of boarding a ship.''We are not usually dealing with 'the enemy,' '' said Cmdr. Mark Baulch, captain of the USS Robert G. Bradley, which relieved the Boone on counterdrug operations last month. In other military operations, ''the enemy is well-defined, but in this situation it's not as much.''In most cases, the encounter ends with those questions. Boone crew members questioned 40 ships during their deployment and boarded only a dozen.''Most of the ships are very friendly,'' Costa said.The Coast Guard must approve each step, moving from questioning to boarding to searching to seizing cargo. During its four-month deployment, the Boone made only a single seizure, netting more than 260 pounds of cocaine. The powder was packed into colored wrappings, dotted with code numbers indicating their destination and cartoon drawings identifying the factory where the drug was processed, Costa said.The law enforcement detachment from the Coast Guard, the only people on the ship with arrest-and-seizure powers, found the drugs on a Panamanian ship, buried in wells of powdered cement.''We sifted some and it came out gray, gray, gray,'' Costa said. ''Then we hit white.''The Coast Guard detachment searched the ship, called the Caribe Star, for more than 36 hours, finding cocaine buried up to 4 feet deep in cement. The drugs were bound for the American coast.''That makes it a little more relevant to home,'' Costa said.A seizure that size makes up only a tiny portion of what the Navy intercepts annually. In 1998, Navy ships seized 73 tons of cocaine - more than $1 billion worth, according to Lt. Danny Hernandez, public affairs officer for the Navy's Western Hemisphere Group.They also netted more than $50 million in marijuana, arrested 131 people, and seized 32 vessels and four aircraft. On average, nearly six Navy ships a day were engaged in anti-drug operations.And because drug producers know the stakes are high, their tactics have become highly evolved, forcing the Navy to constantly adjust their own methods. The opposition is a civilian one, but is also equipped and trained to manage the lucrative cargo they risk on each shipment.''They're civilian, but I'm not walking up and shaking hands with this enemy,'' Costa said. ''They are a conglomerate with the latest technology and the latest boats.''Costa said counter-drug operations are also excellent for training sailors. Although the task force provides specific instructions for where the Boone should be and how to behave, there is much leeway for enterprising officers to try new methods of searching for and tracking targets. Because of the size and configuration of the speedboats they target, ships like the Boone can often use their anti-submarine tactics against the tiny boats, as well.The pace of the mission varies widely based on everything from the weather to the quality and quantity of intelligence provided by the task force.''Sometimes I'll fly three hours and only see one guy,'' said Lt. j.g. Brian Applegate, another pilot from the Boone's helicopter detachment. ''Sometimes there's so many you can't even go after them all.''And though the Boone had only a single seizure during a four-month mission, statistics cannot quantify the other important goal of counter-drug operations: deterrence.''The other guy knows we're out here and we're not making it easy for him,'' Costa said. ''We're the picket line that he has to get through.''By Matthew I. Pinzur Monday, September 13, 1999Times-Union staff writer  The Florida Times-Union 1999 
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