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Drones Join the War Against Drugs

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Luis Romero / AP

Technicians stand next to a Heron drone to be used in a surveillance demonstration related to El Salvador's anti-drug operations, at the second military air base in Comalapa, on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

For weeks, U.S. and Salvadoran counternarcotics officials had been watching a boat they suspected was ferrying drugs to and from El Salvador's Pacific coast. But to be sure, they needed a plane that could stay aloft over the ocean, undetected, long enough to get detailed surveillance imaging. So last month the Defense Department's Southern Command (Southcom) suggested this would be a good opportunity to help determine whether an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) being tested at El Salvador's Comalapa Air Base might be the future of drug interdiction.

The results were encouraging. The UAV, or drone — a wide-winged, blue-gray plane aptly called the Heron, which can stay quietly airborne for more than 20 hours and stream high-fidelity, real-time video from as high as 15,000 ft. — provided officials back at Comalapa with enough information to confirm that the boat was indeed a narco-ship (which will probably be busted soon). "This was a historic first," says Navy commander Kevin Quarderer of Southcom's Innovation Program, "using a UAV for maritime counterdrug operations in a real-world setting with actual targets." (Read about how drones are used in Pakistan.)

Indeed, with drones playing an increasing role in U.S. military operations — some 7,000 are in use today, up from just around 100 in the year 2000 — it only stands to reason that drug drones will soon join America's growing stealth arsenal. That's especially true at a time when many in Congress are questioning the cost-effectiveness of a drug war (which has poured more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to Colombia alone this decade) that intercepts tons of narcotics each year but rarely seems to put appreciable dents in eradicating crops like coca, the raw material of cocaine, or reducing the flow of marijuana, coke, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S. If battlefield drones like the Predator can scan and bomb Taliban targets in the mountains of Afghanistan, the logic goes, a similar drone like the Heron should be able to find the "go fast" boats and submarines used by drug cartels in the waters of this hemisphere. (See pictures inside Mexico's drug tunnels.)

Or, for that matter, clandestine drug-processing labs on land. Drug drones have recently become a more popular idea, thanks in part to the five-year-long drama of three U.S. military contractors who were taken hostage by Marxist guerrillas when their drug surveillance Cessna crashed over the Colombian jungle in 2003. (The three were rescued along with 12 other hostages in a Colombian operation last year.) Using drones could put far fewer agents in that kind of danger.

But for now, the military is focusing on maritime drug drones. A preliminary Southcom report to U.S. legislators like Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who led a push to get $3 million for Heron testing this year, suggests the drone is ready to take on actual interdiction work, which could result in major savings in drug-surveillance outlays for the Federal Government (though Southcom says it hasn't calculated them yet). Cochran, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, is convinced the Heron has "operational readiness and potential to provide more persistent and cost-effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," says the Senator's spokeswoman, Margaret McPhillips. (See pictures from the front lines of Mexico's drug war.)

The program, not coincidentally, could also mean hundreds of new jobs in Cochran's state: Stark Aerospace, the U.S. subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), which makes the Heron, is based in Mississippi. (Massachusetts-based Raytheon is also involved in the Southcom project.) But Southcom believes the drone, each of which costs about $6.5 million, is a good fit for today's counterdrug needs.

A key reason is endurance. Manned counterdrug aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye can stay up only about one-third as long as a drone can. And with drug cartels using harder-to-detect shipment methods like semisubmersibles (jury-rigged submarines), it's critical to have surveillance craft that can "perch and stare" for longer periods, says P.W. Singer, author of Wired For War and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. "Drones are best for the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, so this is a smart move," says Singer. "We can't ask counterdrug crews to keep their eyes open for 20 hours over oceans and mangroves."

Officers like Quarderer also note that the Heron carries a more sophisticated "sensor package" than many conventionally manned aircraft. "The radar package is more capable of detecting low-profile targets like the semisubmersibles," he says. Or as Singer puts it, "You save the drug war a lot of time and money if you can discern more quickly between speedboats that are full of drug runners or drunk college students."

The hemisphere's current political climate also makes drones an especially appealing option. This summer, for example, the U.S. military has to leave the Manta air base in Ecuador — for decades a prime strategic launching pad for drug-surveillance flights — because the county's left-wing, anti-U.S. government has refused to renew the lease. Comalapa might be a replacement. But the situation has reminded Southcom that it can no longer take Latin American roosts like Manta for granted — and that long-range drones are one of the best ways of making up for their loss. Officers like Quarderer, moreover, insist that the UAVs' greater ease of use allows the U.S. to work more closely with counterdrug partners like El Salvador.

Still, the Heron isn't without problems. The Turkish military complained last month about mishaps with the drones it had bought from IAI for counterterrorism surveillance, such as their too often not responding to commands from their human operators on the ground. (IAI rejected the claims but has promised to "rectify" any problems.) U.S. Customs & Border Protection has used Predator drones in recent years to detect illegal immigration, but a series of crashes in recent years has clouded the program.

Quarderer insists that the Heron used in the recent testing project — dubbed Monitoreo, Spanish for monitoring — was virtually problem-free and sported the kind of GPS and automatic-takeoff and -landing technology that enhances safety by minimizing the potential for human error. The only question now seems to be whether Congress will authorize a larger drug-drone fleet, either purchased and operated by the military or leased and contracted out to the aircraft's makers. (Boeing's A160 Hummingbird, a helicopter-like drone, is also being considered for overland counterdrug ops.) In the end, the cost savings Washington has found with drones in real war will be hard to resist in the drug war.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

See pictures of the WWII-era Spitfire fighter plane at LIFE.com.