The U.S. Navy's Future In Drug Interdiction
AUTHOR LCdr Mark J. Salonia, USN
SUBJECT AREA Operations
TITLE: The U.S. Navy's Future in Drug Interdiction
THESIS: Present employment of U.S. Naval Forces in drug interdiction
operations is ineffective and in need of revision.
ISSUE: In the last decade, U.S. Naval Surface/Air assets have
increasingly been utilized in drug interdiction efforts.
Operating in conjuction with, and normally under the control of
U.S. Coast Guard authorities, the U.S. Navy has not made
significant progress in stemming the flow of illicit drugs into
our country. This is attributable to the Department of Defense's
inadequate and ill-defined strategy in an attempt to win the
war on drugs. More importantly, the ever-increasing role of
the military in drug interdiction is in part due to the present
administration's over-reaction to public outcry on the drug
CONCLUSION: The military should be delegated total control of
external drug interdiction. Too often, other federal agencies
duplicate and/or interfere with the military's efforts. Next,
the U.S. Coast Guard should be placed in overall command and control
of maritime drug interdiction. The U.S. Navy will, in its
present mission, require additional training/equipment in order
to successfully assist the Coast Guard in maritime drug
THE U.S. NAVY'S FUTURE IN DRUG INTERDICTION
THESIS: Present employment of U.S. Naval Forces in drug
interdiction operations is ineffective and in need of revision.
I. Present Maritime Drug Interdiction
A. USS FAIRFAX COUNTY conducting law enforcement operations.
B. USCG Tactical Law Enforcement Team mission.
C. DOD's strategy and role of military drug interdiction.
D. Posse Comitatus Act.
II. War on Drugs Status
A. Illicit flow of drugs not impeded significantly by
U.S. maritime forces.
B. U.S. public opinion/military drug interdiction efforts.
C. Military's strategy in drug interdiction ill-defined.
III. Options/Solutions to Military's Role in Drug Interdiction
A. External vs. internal drug interdiction efforts.
B. Military requires a well-defined strategy/mission.
C. USCG must have control of maritime drug interdiction.
D. Transfer USN assets directly to USCG.
E. Establish USN-USMC team as a drug interdiction team.
F. U.S. must work with drug exporting countries in squelching
G. Deter and stop the demand for drugs in the U.S.
H. USN training/equipment must be on par with USCG in order
to continue present maritime drug interdiction mission.
A. Concluding remarks concerning USS FAIRFAX COUNTY's mission.
The U.S. Navy's Future in Drug Interdiction
In early January of 1986, USS FAIRFAX COUNTY(LST-1193) was
assigned a LEO (Law Enforcement Operation) mission and tasked
to patrol the waters of northern Colombia in search of maritime
drug traffickers. FAIRFAX COUNTY, in concert with other naval
and Coast Guard vessels, was a participant in operation codenamed
"Hat Trick II." Prior to departing on this venture, a U.S. Coast
Guard TACLET (Tactical Law Enforcement Team), consisting of
two officers and seven enlisted men, embarked FAIRFAX COUNTY in
Little Creek, Virginia. This TACLET gave their prepared
briefings to the officers and crew of FAIRFAX and imparted a
basic knowledge of duties and responsibilities required of a
naval vessel conducting a drug interdiction mission. The TACLET
is truly a professional team. As CAPT Lockwood, former CARIB
Squadron Commander (1986-87), notes:
These teams of seven to nine petty officers
are headed up by a junior officer who
advises the ship's captain on law enforcement
matters. The LEDET(TACLET) officer in
charge ultimately decides which contacts
are to be boarded. In order to establish
a productive relationship with the ship's
CO, this young first or second tour officer
is expected to be an expert in law enforcement
matters, a sharp, professional representative
of the Coast Guard, and a consummate diplomat.
He must also take pains to ensure that no
vessels of interest get by. When not engaged
in boarding operations, LEDET(TACLET) personnel
conduct law enforcement team training and
familiarization training for the ship's company.1
Upon arriving on station (approximately 60 miles north of
Colombia), FAIRFAX COUNTY encountered strong trade winds which
tossed her about and made for very uncomfortable steaming (six
to eight foot seas were normal throughout the entire three and a
half week period). During the second day of patrol, the
afternoon watch spotted a white 85 foot trawler heading
north-northwest towards the Yucatan Channel (the Yucatan Channel
and Windward Passage are strategic chokepoints in the Caribbean
for drug interdiction). FAIRFAX COUNTY quickly made an intercept
course while the TACLET onboard attempted to establish VHF radio
contact with the unidentified vessel. The USCG officer in charge
ensured that the bridge-to-bridge radio was operated at low power
so that other vessels in the area could not hear his transmissions.
Nonetheless, the white trawler never responded. The unidentified
vessel (now considered a probable drug smuggler) came about to a
southerly heading and was fleeing towards Colombian waters. In
the meantime, the crew of FAIRFAX COUNTY quickly and expertly
manned her three inch guns and .50 cal machine guns2 and continued
her pursuit of the vessel. This pursuit lasted nearly twelve
hours. It was obvious that the unidentified vessel was heading for
the sanction of Colombian waters. FAIRFAX COUNTY maintained
a distance of 500 yards astern of her and at times closed to a
distance of 50 yards off of her starboard bow (all the time directing
searchlights into the pilothouse). However, the white vessel
continued on her course. One mile short of Colombian waters
the captain of FAIRFAX ordered the bridge team to slow and allow
the vessel to continue. Ten minutes later, as the unidentified
vessel steamed over the horizon, permission to enter Colombian waters
was granted to FAIRFAX by Colombian officials (via our state
This true example illustrates some very important lessons.
First, the USCG TACLET at all times during the pursuit demonstrated
the utmost professionalism in the execution of their law enforcement
techniques, however, the only semblance of USCG authority was a
small (2'x 2') USCG Ensign flying from FAIRFAX's yardarm.
Secondly, FAIRFAX COUNTY was hampered in apprehending the suspected
drug trafficker because it did not have a suitable "chaser boat"3.
And lastly, but most importantly, FAIRFAX COUNTY could not continue
the pursuit into Colombian waters without an outright violation
of Colombian water rights. The bottom line was that state department
bureaucracy had certainly created a major obstacle in her mission --
interdict maritime drug trafficking.
Granted, national priorities have since changed and the role
of the military in drug interdiction has now received additional
attention. President Bush's "War on Drugs" campaign and public
opinion certainly support an ever-increasing role of the military
in bringing the drug traffickers to justice.
Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, in detailing the Department
of Defense's effort in drug control stated:
Our specific mission is to protect national
security. There can be no doubt that
international trafficking in drugs is a
national security problem for the United
States. Therefore, detecting and countering
the production and trafficking of illegal
drugs is a high-priority, national security
mission of the Department of Defense... We
also need to make it clear that the Defense
Department is not a law enforcement agency.
We do not enforce domestic criminal laws,
nor can we solve society's demand problems.
But there is much we can do without usurping
the police role.4
Secretary Cheney's statement makes it very clear that
Department of Defense assets will be employed to the fullest
in countering drug trafficking. Additionally, he makes it clear
that the military is not a law enforcement agency. The Navy,
as well as the Army, Air Force, and Marines, will most likely
agree that internal(within the borders of the continental U.S.) drug
interdiction is better left to law enforcement agencies such as
the DEA, CUSTOMS, and Departments of Justice and Treasury.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (later revised in 1976),
specifically prohibited the use of military personnel to enforce
the law. However, in 1981, a Military Appropriations Act (Public
Law 97-86) did permit the employment of military assets in the
role of law enforcement. The role of the Navy in drug interdiction,
however, was limited in scope by the Secretary of Defense. "Navy
participation in support of Coast Guard interdiction operations
was limited by a directive issued to the Secretary of the Navy from
the Secretary of Defense on 9 August 1982. Specifically,
operations were restricted to: (1) air and surface surveillance;
(2)towing/escort of seized vessels and transporting prisoners;
(3) logistic support to Coast Guard units and (4) embarkation
of Coast Guard personnel to conduct lawful boardings of U.S.
flagged and stateless vessels."5
Additional guidance from the Department of Defense in
Our proper role is to support drug law
enforcement agencies with sophisticated
equipment loans, maritime and ground
surveillance of drug trafficking personnel,
vehicles, ships, and aircraft; and to provide
intelligence and communications to improve
drug law enforcement effectiveness. While
the Department of Defense support posture
maintains the historic separation between
civilian law enforcement and military missions
as required by the Posse Comitatus Act,
we endeavor to maximize assistance permitted
under Public Law 97-86, particularly, in
terms of training exercises.6
As a direct result of the foregoing, the United States Navy
became more heavily involved in the drug interdiction role. At
first, the Navy offered its assets (i.e. ships, aircraft, and
associated personnel) on a not-to-interfere basis with scheduled
training exercises. Nevertheless, as the need for drug interdiction
escalated, the Navy then expanded the use of its assets exclusively
for drug interdiction operations and not in conjuction with scheduled
exercises. This will be addressed, later, in greater detail.
One cannot argue that assuming the role of "policeman on the
high seas" was, initially, a morale booster to navy crews who were
normally accustomed to chasing ficticious submarines and churning
"donuts" in the water. This uplift in morale was mainly due to the
novelty of this type of operation.
More importantly, we must not forget that the real expert in
drug interdiction operations is the U.S. Coast Guard and not
the U.S. Navy.
Many proponents of increased involvement
by the armed forces view maritime surface
and air drug interdiction as demanding a
command, control, communications and
intelligence (C3I) system under the
authority of a single military agency.
Ideally, this agency should have broad
maritime operational and law enforcement
experience, and jurisdictional authority
to coordinate and focus all federal drug
interdiction assets, both military and
civilian. The Coast Guard fits the bill.
It is a single federal law enforcement
agency that has the infrastructure for such
a C3I system, has the broad maritime experience
and has the requisite jurisdictional authority.7
Now let us shift our attention to a crucial question. And that is
to consider whether or not the increase in military maritime drug
interdiction has substantially reduced the flow of illicit drugs
into the United States. Eventhough the daily news bring word
that a number of drug traffickers, with their cargo of drugs, have
been seized at sea, the number of interdictions does not equate to
this all out war on drugs.
Interdiction of drugs before they cross
our borders is the key to drug law
enforcement. To date, the nation's
interdiction efforts have had only limited
success. Informal government estimates
reflect that less than 10% of all illicit
drugs destined for the United States are
interdicted. Reliable data cannot, of course,
be compiled. Observers believe the 10%
figure is optimistic.8
Today, the increased employment of military forces in the
area of drug interdiction is merely, as previously mentioned, a
"knee-jerk" response to public opinion. It seems that each and
every maritime drug bust receives some form of national media
attention. Thus, the average american is lulled into a misconception.
What the public does not realize is that we are not winning this war.
Drug smugglers are quite ingenious. They are capaple of changing
their drug routes, employing decoys, monitoring USCG/USN communication
frequencies, acquring the lastest in weaponry, etc. Drug smugglers
are quite content to accept a 10% loss of drug flow knowing full
well that 90% of their product is reaching the desired destination.
Charles Fuss, a former member of the National Narcotics Border
Interdictory System, emphasizes this point when he argues:
The drug war bears unavoidable similarities
to the U.S. experience in Southeast Asia.
During the Vietnam War, the high command
was convinced that the United States could
bleed the enemy to death by a war of
attrition, and that productivity could be
measured in body counts and battlefield
days in the field... In the war on drugs,
seizure and arrest statistics define success
and the various antidrug agencies involved
fight for the numbers -- the "body counts."
Attrition did not work in Vietnam, and it
will not help the United States win the
The United States is pouring millions of dollars into drug
interdiction efforts which, in the long run, will not substantially
stem the flow of illicit drugs into our country. As for the Navy,
most of their ships are now pulling double-duty. In other
words, each assigned ship will serve three to four weeks in the
Caribbean (patrolling for drug traffickers) either prior to or
upon completion of a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean.
This constant wear and tear of naval assets will certainly cost the
U.S. government in terms of extensive ship/aircraft repair not to
mention crew fatigue. To complicate matters further, U.S.
military decision makers have now encountered opposition to
increased military involvement by those countries cited as
main exporters of illicit drugs. The Navy Times reports that
the Department of Defense has not yet defined a workable strategy
in its war on drugs and that drug exporting countries are not
pleased with increased military involvement.
Four months after Defense Secretary Cheney
pledged that the military would be an
"enthusiastic participant" in the nation's
drug war, the Defense Department is fumbling
for a workable strategy in an unfamiliar
warfare. The military's first big anti-drug
operation -- posting an aircraft carrier
off the coast of Colombia to detect drug
smugglers -- had to be aborted in early
January when news of it sparked furious
denunciations in Colombia and other Latin
American countries. And even with President
Bush's January 25th (1990) announcement
that defense spending would increase to $1.2
billion next year, the scope and nature
of the Defense Department's role (in drug
interdiction) remains undefined.10
This is an unfortunate and clear indication that when the
military (in this case, the Navy) attempts to display a true show
of force by employing a carrier (with all of its air/surface
surveillance assets) in identifying and seizing drug smugglers,
the government backsdown to foreign public reaction. Morever, it
is those same countries which are responsible for having
instituted our intensive drug interdiction efforts. Once again,
the quest for successful drug interdiction becomes a "no-win" contest.
in the meantime, our government is content to report sporadic drug
seizures despite the overwhelming cost incurred in terms of
military equipment and manpower.
There exist some viable options and/or solutions to our
present employment of the military in conducting drug interdiction.
First and foremost, the responsibility for external (i.e. outside
the borders of the continental U.S.) drug interdiction should
reside strictly with the military. Our military does have the
necessary assets to actively pursue and apprehend drug traffickers
without the unnecessary interference and/or duplication of
efforts from the civilian federal agencies (i.e. DEA, Customs,
etc.). Moreover, the key to successful military drug interdiction
is a viable and well-defined strategy which, as previously depicted,
does not exist. In the area of maritime drug interdiction,
the U.S. Coast Guard must maintain overall command and control.
"The agency that can best manage our nation's operational
interdiction responsibilities -- both air and sea -- is the
With the recent disclosure of cutbacks in armed forces personnel
and equipment, the Navy could easily transfer reserve (or soon to
be reserve) ships and the necessary personnel directly to the
Coast Guard. In essence, transform "haze gray" vessels into
Coast Guard "white and orange." Eventually, this would minimize
command and control problems which presently persist in the
USCG/USN drug interdiction combined operations.
Secondly, the military forces must be employed on a much
larger scale. In addition to the established drug interdiction
operations, we should allow military forces to tackle the problem
head-on. In other words, if a military raid is required in
known drug exporting countries, then let's do it. The recent
invasion of Panama was labeled a military intervention in order
to save our citizens and restore democracy. However, one must not
forget that one of the specific tasks of our troops in Panama
was to capture and arrest General Noreiga. Gen. Noreiga, an
alleged drug "kingpin," is now facing criminal charges in the
What we need is a small, but potent, Navy-USMC team embarked
onboard an amphibious ship standing by in the Caribbean basin.
This team may at the discretion of our government, be employed
on a moment's notice strictly for drug raids. Drug exporting
countries (e.g. Colombia, Peru, etc.) will certainly think twice
about harboring drug kingpins and their industry knowing full
well that a U.S. military force is able to strike without warning.
"To be fully effective, interdiction must aim at trafficking
organizations and individuals themselves, creating a serious
risk of punishment or financial loss. Where overseas efforts
are concerned. This implies the need for activities in drug
source and transit countries that are specifically designed to
disrupt and, if possible, dismantle trafficking organizations --
through application of strict enforcement and criminal sanctions
and through stringent interdiction of trafficking routes and
modes."12 We must interpret "stringent interdiction" to mean the
use of full and unrestrained military might.
Thirdly, our government must establish a solid working
relationship with known drug exporting countries and convince them
of our resolve to stem the flow of illicit drugs. Perhaps
our government should subsidize these countries into producing
legitimate food crops vice growing cocoa leaves. The recent drug
summit held in Colombia is certainly a step in the right direction.
Fourthly, aside from the military, our nation's federal
agencies must do everything in their power to handle internal drug
interdiction and apprehend the distributors and users of illicit
drugs. Stifling the demand for drugs will most definitely affect
the supply of same. This is a very difficult task, but
improvements in this area are being made. The American Public must
be made aware of the fact that external drug interdiction efforts
is not the panacea in abating drug usage and that we will not
experience swift results. We must simply maintain a relentless
internal drug interdiction campaign.
Lastly, if the U.S. Navy should continue to work in close
partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard in maritime drug interdiction,
then the Department of Defense must provide additional drug
interdiction training and associated equipment to the Navy in
order to conduct this mission successfully. At the same time,
the Department of Defense must be willing to sacrifice the
operational tempo of the fleet presently deploying to the
As for USS FAIRFAX COUNTY, the twenty-three days at sea
patrolling the waters of northern Colombia resulted in ten
interceptions, two actual boardings, and zero arrests. However,
the USCG Cutter DALLAS (operating in an area adjacent to FAIRFAX) did
make a seizure and requested assistance in escorting the drug
smugglers and their vessel to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba. There was finally an end in sight to this long,
arduous, and primarily monotonous patrol.
At the same time, the officers and men of FAIRFAX COUNTY couldn't
help but feel that perhaps their small contribution might make
an impact in our military's drug interdiction efforts.
1 John W. Lockwood, CAPT USCG(RET). "Blocking Caribbean Drug
Traffic." Naval Proceedings. Dec. 1986, p. 102
2 Though FAIRFAX COUNTY's main batteries were manned, the rules
of engagement only permitted the ship to return fire in
self-defense. Firing across the bow of a vessel in order to have
stop was not permitted at this time.
3 As a result of post action reports, U.S. Naval vessels today
involved in drug interdiction missions are provided with a
USCG RHIB (outboard motor rubber craft) which is easily
launched and recovered in rough seas and is capable of high
4 Richard Cheney, SECDEF. "DOD and its Role in the War against
Drugs." DEFENSE 89. Based on a news briefing at the
Pentagon, Sep. 18, 1989, p. 3
5 Patrick D. Mahaffey, LCDR USN. "What is the U.S. Navy's Role
in Drug Interdiction?" Naval War College Newport R.I. DTIC
Jun. 27, 1988, p. 7
6 Ibid., pp. 7-8
7 Richard Young, RADM USNR. "Customs or Coast Guard." Naval
Proceedings. Aug. 1987, p. 69
8 Ibid., p. 62
9 Charles M. Fuss, Jr. "Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and the
Drug War." Naval Proceedings. Dec. 1989, pp. 65-66
10 William Matthews. "Pentagon Strategy in Drug War undefined."
Navy Times. Feb. 5, 1990 issue, p. 25
11 Stephen G. Duca, CAPT USCG(RET). "The Ad Hoc Drug War."
Naval Proceedings. Dec. 1987, p.91
12 United States Office of National Drug Control. National
Drug Control Strategy. U.S. Govt. Printing Office,
Wash D.C., Sep. 1989, pp. 74-75
Cheney, D. (SECDEF). "DOD and its Role in the War against Drugs."
DEFENSE 89. Based on a news briefing at the Pentagon,
September 18, 1989 (1-7)
Colleta, David R. OS1, USN et al. "A National Drug Interdiction
System." Naval Proceedings. February 1987 (95-96)
DeHoust, Walter F. LTCOL, USMC. "The Use of Conventional Military
Forces for Drug Interdiction." Naval War College Newport R.I.
DTIC. June 17, 1988
Duca, G. Stephen, CAPT, USCG(RET). "The Ad Hoc Drug War."
Naval Proceedings. December 1987 (85-91)
Fuss, Charles M. Jr. "Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and the Drug War."
Naval Proceedings. December 1989 (65-69)
LaCouture, John E. CAPT, USN(RET). "Isn't it time to declare war
on the Drug Invaders?" Naval Proceedings. December 1986 (84-85)
Lockwood, John W. CAPT, USCG. "Blocking Caribbean Drug Traffic."
Naval Proceedings. December 1989 (101-106)
Mahaffey, Patrick D. LCDR, USN. "What is the U.S. Navy's Role in
Drug Interdiction?" Naval War College Newport R.I. DTIC.
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Matthews, William. "Pentagon Strategy in Drug War undefined."
Navy Times. February 5, 1990 (25-26)
Naples, Donald A. CAPT, USCG. "Justice for the Coast Guard!"
Naval Proceedinqs. July 1987 (84-89)
Reuter, Peter et al. Sealing the Borders, the Effects of Increased
Military Participation in Drug Interdiction. Office of the
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. January 1988
United States Office of National Drug Control. National Drug Control
Strategy. U.S. Government Printing Office, Wash D.C.,
Venzke, Norman C. RADM, USCG(RET). "What is the `Drug War' Threat?"
Naval Proceedings. December 1985 (114-115)
Young, Richard RADM, USNR et al. "Customs or Coast Guard."
Naval Proceedings. August 1987 (67-73)
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