For weeks, U.S. and Salvadoran counter-narcotics officials had been watching a boat which 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.
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 spokesperson, Margaret McPhillips. (See pictures from the frontlines 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 Israeli Aircraft Industries (AIA), which makes the Heron, is based in Mississippi. (Massachusetts-based Raytheon is also involved in the Southcom project.) But Southcom believes the drone, which costs about $6.5 million each, is a good fit for today’s counter-drug needs.