Drug Interdiction--A Losing Strategy
SUBJECT AREA National Military Strategy
Title: Drug Interdiction -- A Losing Strategy
Author: Major Warren R. Tate, United States Air Force
Thesis: Direct military intervention into drug trafficking is not
strategically sound, tactically suitable, or cost effective.
Background: The U.S. Military became heavily involved in drug
interdiction in 1989, when President Bush declared war on drugs.
The President's drug strategy of political pressure, financial aid,
education, and interdiction is sound but the military is an
inappropriate agency to implement this strategy. The objective
stated by Secretary of Defense Cheney to eradicate the flow of
drugs into the U.S. is nebulous, unmeasurable, and unachievable.
With the high profit margin of growing coca and the vast amounts of
arable land lying dormant in South America, supply growth is
incalculable. Therefore, demand must be the focus of attention and
the military cannot affect the mindset of the people.
Military assistance programs have been unsuccessful in the
Andean nations due to corruption and fear in the political/military
hierarchy, tying foreign aid to human rights, and a lack of
financial guarantees to coca-growing nations.
With the dwindling DoD budget, the U.S. Air Force tried to set
up drug task forces from within it's existing structure. The cost
of dedicating high-tech aircraft for the express purpose of drug
interdiction is in direct proportion to the decreasing combat
readiness and effectiveness of those units.
After three years of intensive military interdiction, the
results are an increase In U.S. drug use, quadrupled trafficking
routes, and a growth in coca production. Congress has cut the drug
war budget by $53 million in 1993 and is questioning the direct
role of active duty military in drug intervention. The military
cannot affect the true center of gravity in the drug war and the
cost compared to the results are questionable.
Recommendation: The National Guard and Coast Guard are better
suited for the mission of drug interdiction and have the legal
authority. But the main focus of effort needs to be on decreasing
demand by concentrating on the true center of gravity -- the U.S.
DRUG INTERDICTION -- A LOSING STRATEGY
Thesis: The U.S. Military is expected to decrease drug trafficking
through interdiction: however, the source of measurement for
success is nebulous, the drug czar's true center of gravity is
protected by political concerns, arrest authority (end-game) lies
outside the active-duty military's jurisdiction, and the drug
interdiction training/mission are contradictory and antagonistic to
good combat training.
I. Presidential declaration of war on drugs
A. Historical/social concerns
B. Political overtones
II. Defining the objectives
A. Measurement of success?
B. Center of gravity
C. Military assistance
D. Military/political impact
III. Cost effectiveness of military drug interdiction
A. Air Force setup
B. Training; drug -vs- combat
C. Success/failure rate after 3 years
D. Congressional/funding initiatives
A. National Guard and Coast Guard
B. Focus on the correct center of gravity
C. Social focus on the real problem
DRUG INTERDICTION -- A LOSING STRATEGY
For the last 40 years the American people have perceived
the Soviet Union as the perpetrators of evil and the major
focal point of U.S. military strategy. Therefore, as the
Soviet Union disintegrated, so did the age-old strategy of
containment and American society's fixation on the sinister
Soviets. But a more sinister threat was brewing as the Cold
War ended and now we are faced with "containing the new
With internal economic strife and the perceived decay of
the moral fiber in the U.S., the President, Congress, and,
most importantly, the American people are zeroing in on some
fundamental causes. Illegal drugs pose a direct threat to
the security of the United States. Trafficking organizations
have turned our inner cities' streets into battlegrounds. The
staggering quantities of illicit substances entering the
country continue to pose a serious threat to our citizens'
health and the national economy. Moreover, this international
scourge puts strains on relationships with our allies and
contributes to serious instability in regions laboring under
staggering political, economic, and social challenges. The
devastating effects of drugs on our society in the form of
wasted youth, man hours, dollars, law enforcement, murder,
gang violence, organized crime, and illegal wealth are self-
evident and undeniable.
In 1989 President Bush publicly declared war on drugs. In
his first State of the Union Address to a joint session of
Congress, he detailed the resources necessary to combat the
scourge of illegal drugs. He concluded: "Many resources will
be used to protect our borders, with help of the Coast Guard,
the Custom Services, the Departments of State, and Justice,
and, yes, the U.S. military." (15: 2) At that moment a new
era in military strategy was born. Congress delineated the
armed forces' responsibilities through the Defense
Authorization Act, Title XI. Within this framework, Secretary
of Defense Cheney in his policy guidance to the Department on
September 18, 1989, directed the flow of drugs be attacked at
every phase -- at the source, in transit, and in the United
States. (14: 3) The policy of attacking illegal drugs at
their source was designed to assist in the implementation of
a major part of the President's National Drug Control
Strategy, which is a concentrated effort to control and defeat
the drug trade in the principal cocaine source countries --
Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. The broad objective is to work
with the governments of each of these nations to disrupt and
destroy the growing, processing, and transportation of coca
and coca products within each country.
The President's strategy seeks to attain four near-term
goals: to strengthen the political will and institutional
capability of the three nations enabling them to disrupt and
dismantle the trafficking organizations by disrupting
trafficking operations; to increase the effectiveness of law
enforcement and military activities of nations against the
cocaine trade; to inflict significant damage on the
trafficking organizations by disrupting trafficking
operations; and to strengthen and diversify the legitimate
economies of the Andean Nations to enable them to overcome the
destabilizing effects of eliminating cocaine, a major source
of income. (15: 6-12)
The president's drug strategy -- political pressure on
drug producing countries, financial aid to fight drug
trafficking, internal education, and interdiction -- is a
sound approach. However, direct military intervention is not
strategically sound, tactically suitable, or cost effective,
particularly for the U.S. Air Force.
As lofty and commendable as President Bush's goals and
Secretary Cheney's taskings are, they must be examined in
realistic terms. The superficial logic of using the U.S.
military's vast technological resources, manpower, and
existing command and control structure appears cost effective,
but a closer scrutiny of cost-to-value in relationship to the
objective will show the "real term" cost is too high.
The objective stated by the State Department in
cooperation with Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Department
of Defense (DoD) is to "disrupt and eventually cease, the flow
of illegal drugs into the United States." (14: 6) How is
success measured? Is success the proportional increase of
kilograms seized, the number of vehicles/aircraft confiscated,
the street value of seized drugs, or the decrease in demand
that makes the supply irrelevant? With the staggering supply
base in Peru, Columbia, and Bolivia, it's obvious that
potential for supply growth is incalculable. Peru, which
supplies 60 percent of the world's coca for cocaine, is
presently using only 25 percent of the arable land. (9: 15-18)
The implication is that with 75 percent of Peru's arable land
still available to grow coca -- not to mention land in
Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela -- the drug cartels can
theoretically produce and supply the world with more cocaine
than it can possibly consume. And with the U.S. surrounded
on two sides by oceans and bordered by two free-trade nations,
supply will always be ample and traffic routes plentiful.
These facts make the first three measurement options for
success impractical, since a production base-line is
statistically unpredictable. The only true measurement of
success is a increase in demand, reflected proportionally by
a decrease in drug usage in the continental United States.
The American people don't care how much cocaine a foreign
nation produces as long as it doesn't end up on American
streets. This is the true measurement of success.
To use the military to target the supply source and
traffic routes is to target the wrong center of gravity with
the wrong resource. The military can slow, but never
decrease, the import of drugs to any appreciable degree. It
seems this strategy is a show of commitment, with scarce
combat resources and no measurable-results. The true center
of gravity is the users' demand, which military force cannot
affect. The most vivid example of applying force to the wrong
center of gravity is the prohibition laws of the 1920's.
Attacks on the source of alcohol didn't decrease the demand or
supply, but instead made it more lucrative. Only after
repealing the law, and the government starting an education
program focusing on the true center of gravity -- the people -
- did demand stabilize. It was a long and arduous process,
but today's society has deglamourized alcohol, and the younger
generation doesn't think it's cool. The portrayal of alcohol
in every stratum of society, in every public media, shows it
as a harmful influence on success, order and discipline.
According to Clausewitz, the government shouldn't ask
the military to do something it can't do. (12) The military
can't affect the true center of gravity -- "the hearts and
minds of the people." Furthermore, the American people have
historically demanded quick and substantial results when
involving their military. Narcotic Warfare is a long-term
venture with unmeasurable results in the short term. The
military can't provide tangible results in a protracted
narcotics war. The enemy is intertwined within several
international societies, and in the minds of our own citizens.
This is a non-nation-state war with an economic objective, and
a non-conflict strategy. Consequently, the political,
diplomatic, and educational resources are more applicable.
As good troopers do, the military personnel have complied
with the Secretary of Defense's guidance and continue to
provide training and operational support to host-nation
counternarcotics forces throughout the Andean region. Total
military aid has grown substantially in recent years. In
1989, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru received approximately $3
million; in 1991 the total was $114.5 million. Military
personnel assistance in the region has been provided in the
form of Mobile Training Teams, Deployments for Training, and
Short Duration Exercises. These elements continue to train
host nation police and military units for a variety of
counternarcotics missions Training is being provided in
aircraft maintenance, logistics, individual and small unit
tactics, leadership, and air mobile and riverine operations.
Advice on the procurement and architecture of command,
control, communications, and intelligence facilities has been
given. (14: 13-25) Furthermore, in August 1990, the President
invoked the provisions of Section 506(a) of the Foreign
Assistance Act of 1961 and authorized the draw down of up to
$65 million of DoD stocks for Colombia and Peru. (10: 33)
Equipment such as aircraft, boats, and trucks provided
enhanced capability of the source country to insert their own
counternarcotics forces to remote regions where cocaine is
grown, processed or transported.
All the military stock, man hours, and money was for
naught. Within weeks after the trucks arrived they could be
found on the black market siphoned off by the inner circle of
the military elite. The senior military leadership refused to
use the specialty trained anti-drug troops for drug
interdiction. They emphasized that internal drug affairs are
amatter for the police unless marshall law is declared. When
raids were ordered by respective political authorities, the
cartel seemed to know in advance about the raid and either had
already abandoned the site or the cache was of minimal value,
nonetheless, the action was classified a "successful raid."
Much of the ammo, medical supplies, and engineering equipment
in turn was raided by anti-government factions who support the
cartel. (8: 41)
Our impact on the political scene has been just as
"successful." In 1990, President Bush came to agreement with
President Gaviria of Colombia and President Fujimori of Peru
to put pressure on the drug trafficking kingpins. (3: A-27)
The Andean nation Presidents issued orders to round up well-
known cartel leaders. Initially everything looked good, but
after the first cartel leader was extradited to the U.S.,
political leaders and judges started to be executed by the
Maoist guerrillas and cartel members. Thereafter, the
political position of the countries' political hierarchy
changed quickly. The program still exists today but only as
The personal agenda of these countries' leaders is
another problem. The U.S. concern with its own social
deterioration pales in comparison to the mass unemployment and
starvation that would occur in these countries if a suitable
replacement at a marketable rate for the coca crop is not
found. The U.S. is unwilling to guarantee purchase of the
replacement crop at a set rate. President Fujimori opposes
goals without "guaranteed financing. " He said Americans don't
understand "the poverty and problems of the coca growers in
Peru." (1: A-6) At the November 1991 drug summit in Mexico,
the United States tied additional financial aid to human
rights and further angered the coca-producing countries.
President Fujimori was quoted at the summit complaining "the
slight American Aid is not worth the risk." (1: A-6) He was
very emphatic that he would not agree to any long term plan
that didn't guarantee his people a livelihood after the
eradication of the coca crop. It seems the United States'
moral crusade is in direct conflict with some countries' basic
survival. Unity in the drug war on the political and economic
front is very elusive under these conditions.
Looking at the military aspect of this and in specific at
the U.S. Air Force's role, when the Secretary of Defense
tasked the Air Force for drug interdiction, General Welch,
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, decided not to
establish a new command to accomplish the mission, but decided
to work within the existing command structure and form
composite task teams. In 1989 the Air Force set up Forward
Operating Locations (FOL) for drug interdiction in Panama and
Puerto Rico. They incorporated NORAD and ground-base radar
sites into the civilian information network, and created a
command and control network for drug information through
Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and ground-based
This immediately affected the combat readiness of the
supporting fighter squadrons. The belief was that by doing
these intercepts fighter pilots would maintain combat
proficiency and get real-world experience on low and slow
targets. In reality it was a double-edged sword, and both
edges cut the Air Force.
It took a month to train the pilots to use the Night
Vision Goggles (NVG)and to safely execute a night radar
intercept on a 110-knot target at 100 feet. NVGs afforded no
depth perception or visual acuity until closing within 5000
feet of a target. Flying the aircraft on the absolute edge,
using radar-only techniques at night. and navigating within
five wingspans of the earth is a situation an F-15/F-16 pilot
would never put himself into during combat. Pilots found the
training counter-productive for combat employment and contrary
to established habit patterns. After training, the pilots
spent 30 days at the FOLs, cycling-two days on alert and two
days off. While off alert, the pilots tried to fly similar
air-to-air combat sorties to maintain their skills. Because
of airspace and aircraft availability, they only averaged four
sorties a month, compared to 18 sorties flown by a squadron
pilot. If they flew drug interdiction, it was negative
training. if they didn't fly, they lost the opportunity
afforded a squadron pilot to maintain combat readiness. If we
extend this into the future with a decrease from 35 to 26
fighter wings, the loss of every sortie for every pilot is
magnified. With a smaller force every asset has to be ready
for crisis response in a combat arena.
AWACS found it useful to exercise the airborne control to
flghter-handoff system. Unfortunately, international
complications and numerous command intricacies prevented AWACS
from using standard combat procedures. According to General
McPeak. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, lessons learned in
Southwest Asia (SWA) emphasized the need for standard command
and control and radio terminology to accomplish successfully
tactical intercepts. (4: 26)
Despite the ease with which tankers and airlift missions
meld into this scheme, there's still a combat cost. Aircraft
are a finite resource. For every airframe taken out of the
dwindling inventory for drug operations, there's a direct
reduction in the ability to support airlift or air-refuel at
combat exercises. During SWA the Air Force had to suspend
temporarily drug operations to support airlift, tanker, and
AWACS requirements. And that was a limited medium level war.
There are not enough airframes to support two 1/2-front wars,
and a drug front. It's critical to keep all assets focused on
combat -- the tip of the spear.
Drug command posts incorporate coastal defense and Early
Warning (EW) radars through military communication links. For
instance, Joint Task Force 4 (JTF) is the central command post
for all of SOUTHCOM. The problem is that these radars are set
up for strategic or tactical threats (high speed flying
aircraft or missiles). Defense radars become saturated when
re-biased for slow-moving aircraft. Additionally, every
aircraft flying less than 180 knots requires identification.
Currently, one-half of all coastal traffic is private aircraft
flying less than 180-knots, and on a visual flight plan. This
saturation of the radar draws the attention of the operator
away from his primary job -- early detection of incoming
Three years after the declaration of war on drugs, the
massive infusion of military assistance to the Andean nations,
and a comprehensive interdiction program, where do we stand?
According to two separate government annual studies, there was
an increase of drug use in the U.S. in 1991. The High School
Senior drug survey, which surveys 34,000 graduating seniors
every year, shows a one percent increase in drug
experimentation in our nation's Senior High Schools. Also,
the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) which keeps statistics
on drug-related emergency room visits and deaths in large
metropolitan areas across the country, and is considered to be
the Nation's best short-term indicator of drug-use trends,
shows a 1.3 percent increase in the use of cocaine and heroin.
(5: A-4) Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said the
nation's drug problem appears to be getting worse, not better.
"There are more cocaine addicts in America today than there
were three years ago, and the number of heroin addicts has
nearly doubled in the past three years," Biden said. (6: D-3)
Furthermore, DEA says the heavy military surveillance
over the Caribbean has caused the drug traffickers to develop
numerous alternate routes, thereby spreading the drug
trafficking market to several new countries. (2) A prime
example is Venezuela, where a year ago U.S. officials
estimated annual cocaine exports were 82 to 88 tons. Today,
Venezuelan and U.S. officials say the total is between 175 and
220 tons, or about a quarter of the cocaine sent to the United
States and Europe. The DEA estimates that overall coca
production has increased by 50 percent and trafficking by 600
percent. Even though the U.S. military intercepted over 300
drug sorties in the Caribbean region in 1991, the number is
estimated by DEA to be less than 10 percent of the total drug
traffic in the area. (11)
Not surprisingly, the Air Force is totally frustrated.
The cartel has unlimited funds and has radars that tell them
when the fighter/AWACS are airborne and their locations. All
they do is take an alternate route or wait for the aircraft to.
return to base. Even when the fighter/AWACS team has a
successful intercept, because of the Posse Comitatus Act that
prohibits direct participation in search. seizure, and arrest
it's forced to hand off the bogie to a civil authority who may
or may not pick up the aircraft once it reaches its
destination. It's maddening for the aircrews not to be able
to bring the intercept to fruition.
After all this, even Congress is getting the picture.
Even though the military has painted nothing but a rosy
picture of their capabilities and adherence to their guidance,
the truth of the matter is seeping in. Congressional members
have said they're going to shrink President Bush's 1993 budget
proposal for DoD's funding for the war on drugs. The decline
of $51 million in $1.2 billion budget amounts to a four
percent cut. According to Senator Alan Cranston, D-Calif.,
DoD turned aside an effort by the office of drug control
policy to increase the military's role in the war against
drugs. "Frankly, I think DoD should be applauded for its
stand," Sen. Cranston said in a Senate speech February 4,
1992. Greater military involvement in the drug war "will be
costly, create as many or more problems than it solves, and in
the last analysis, is doomed to failure." (10: 33)
Of all the DoD agencies, the Coast Guard, and National
Guard are best suited to deal with this operation. Both have
the capabilities and legal authority to search, seize, and
apprehend. To enhance their programs, the congressionally
allocated monies for drug interdiction could go into the Coast
Guard dirigible radars, coastal ships, and National Guard
F-16s for FOLs. The National Guard would involve local
citizens and foster popular support. But this must be done in
concert with the political and educational options.
The social evil of drugs and a need for a national
strategy is unquestionable. However, using the military as
the primary resource for drug interdiction demands too high a
cost for too little return. Stephen M. Duncan, Assistant
Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and acknowledged
Pentagon drug czar, said disenchantment with the drug war is
growing. "We're getting so little of the drug traffic for
such a great expenditure of effort... .we're pouring money into
the ocean at a time when resources are scarce." (5: A-4)
As long as we're focused on the wrong center of gravity,
have unmeasurable objectives, and can't insure a quick
decisive military victory, the military is in a lose-lose
situation. The emphasis should be on the other resources
mentioned by the President: political and diplomatic efforts
with the drug- producing countries to eradicate supply at the
source -- and most of all a comprehensive educational plan in
the U.S. to reduce demand. The strategy presented to the
American people must be in a realistic format with reasonable
time lines and expectations. The people must realize they are
the fundamental factor in drug control: according to a
capitalistic axiom, "demand creates supply." The military
can't change that.
1. Connell, Christopher. "Unity Elusive in Drug War," Washington Times,
March 12, 1992, Section A., p.6.
2. Drug Enforcement Agency. Personal Interview about Counter-Narcotics
Operations, Washington D.C., December 22, 1991.
3. Farah, Douglas. "Colombian Cartels Expand Overnight," Washington
Post, December 25, 1991, Section A., p.27.
4. Fighter Weapons School. "Lessons Learned in SWA," Fighter Weapons
Review, October 1991, pp.10-11.
5. Isikoff, Michael. "Cocaine Use on the Upswing," Washington post,
November 29, 1991, Section A., p.4.
6. Isikoff, Michael. "Reversing Course, Cocaine-Use Indicator is Rising,"
Washington Post, November 22, 1991, Section D., p. 3.
7. Kaplan, John. Drug Law and Legislation -- US. U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1991: 31-34.
8. Larmer, Brook. "The Gateway to Heaven," Newsweek, January 20, 1992, p.41.
9. MacDonald, Scott. Mountain High, White Avalanche. Washington Papers,
Issn. 0-278-937X 137., Praeger, Publishers, 1989.
10. Matthews, William. "Drug War Funds would Shrink Under Budget Proposal,"
Air Force Times, February 17, 1992, pg.33.
11. Pentagon Official. Personal Interview about Counter-Narcotics Operations,
Washington D.C., December 22, 1991.
12. Pierce, Albert. Professor of Mi1itary Strategyn National War College.
Group lecture about Carl Von Clausewitz. Washington D.C., August 23, 1991.
13. Tarazona-Sevillano, Gabriela. Coca Industry - Peru. Washington Papers,
Issn. 0-278-937X 147., Praeger, Publishers, 1990.
14. U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.
Department of Defense Coordinator for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support.
Hearing Before The House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control,
June 20, 1991.
15. The White House. National Drug Control Strategy. U.S Government
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