KEY WEST -- On the flight deck of the HSV 2 Swift, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris received instructions Friday on how to launch the 13-pound drone that looks like a model airplane built by a teenager in the family garage.
“Raise it when we’re ready,” a civilian operator told the commander of the U.S. 4th Fleet. “It’s a piece of cake.”
Harris did as told, launching the Puma AE (all environment) — a waterproof, unmanned aircraft — into the vast blue yonder of the Florida Straits to track and provide real-time video of a go-fast boat in a mock drug smuggling operation.
“So easy, even an admiral can do it,” Harris joked.
It was a test to see if the relatively low-cost drone, which runs on battery power, could be an alternative to manned aircraft such as the P-3 Orion, which requires a crew of seven and guzzles fuel.
The Navy is trying to get creative to continue its never-ending war on drugs during these tough economic times, in which its budget has been further squeezed by new mandatory cuts triggered by the recent federal sequester.
In March, the Navy announced the budget cuts were forcing it to stop the deployments of two of its frigates, the USS Gary and the USS Thach, that were patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific for traffickers of drugs, people and guns.
“It’s the old saying attributed to Mr. [Winston] Churchill: ‘We’ve run out of money; it’s time to think,’ ” Harris said.
That’s why the 321-foot Swift also was carrying an unusual sight for a ship — a big white blimp that was moored next to the big X that marks the spot for helicopter landings.
This TIF-25K Tethered Aerostat had no markings on it because it was used for military operations in Afghanistan. But with the draw down of missions in that war, the military wants to find ways to repurpose the unmanned blimps that run on helium.
“We’ve only been at sea once before, and that was on a barge in one of the Great Lakes,” said Craig P. Laws, the U.S. Navy program manager for Raven Inc., the blimp’s private manufacturer based in South Dakota. “We used it for a scientific experiment, watching algae grow with a university. Flying from the flight deck of a Navy ship is new to us.”
While blimps and remote controlled airplanes have been around for decades; never before have they been combined for this sort of mission at sea. Part of the reason: the technology has greatly advanced (also becoming smaller and lighter) for the cameras, sensors and communication equipment they carry. “And obviously, necessity is the mother of invention,” Harris said.
It’s still a work in progress, but Harris is excited about the potential of the blimp and drone. Vessels like the Swift can increase its small boat detection capabilities from about five miles with its onboard radar, to 50 miles or so when the blimp and its F50 radar is raised to its maximum height of about 2,000 feet. The blimp also has a camera that can capture footage up to 15 miles away for big vessels.
And, weather permitting, the blimp can supply 24/7 monitoring. The P-3 must return within 10 hours for refueling and change of crews. The downside: there’s nobody armed in the blimp and drone that can force the smugglers to stop.
The drones are sent out only after a suspicious vehicle has been identified. “It gives a god’s-eye view,” said Craig Benson, director of business development for California-based AeroVironment Inc., which makes the Puma AE.
The Pumas can fly for about two hours and have the ability to sneak up on smugglers because they are quiet and look like birds, with a wingspan of nine feet. The hope is that its cameras will be able to capture evidence of smugglers trying to throw cocaine or marijuana overboard to avoid arrest and prosecution.
One Navy requirement of the Puma was for it to be able to land in salt water and float for four hours, Benson said.
That requirement was put to the test when the Puma came in for a landing on the flight deck Friday but sank quickly as it hit the exhaust gas thermal created by the ship. The remote control operator turned the plane sharply to the right to avoid hitting the large throng of media watching the demonstration. Gasps were heard as it crashed into the sea.
Harris shrugged. “The thing is going to float,” he said. And it did, retrieved more than 15 minutes later by the ship’s small boat. Another Puma was launched. Harris said he’d give the operator $1 if he landed it this time in the middle of the big X. And the operator did.
While the five- to seven-foot seas and winds of more than 20 knots forced the Coast Guard to call off a boarding demonstration, Harris said he was pleased at how the blimps radar and drone’s cameras tracked the Gotcha, a previously confiscated go-fast boat from a drug bust that was positioned offshore of Key West for Friday’s test.
The next step is to test the blimp and drone operationally in the southwestern Caribbean. This is being delayed a few days to “tweak some issues with the radar,” Harris said. “We’ve got to wait for the techs to arrive.”
If all goes well with the operational tests, Harris said the information will be passed up to “Big Navy,” who will decide if the blimp and drone will become part of its assets. The decision will be made in consultation with other agencies, including the Key West-based Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF), which oversees Operation Martillo for the United States.
While many people see the war on drugs as a losing battle, Harris and other defenders say the efforts are paying off, particularly since the United States has partnered with Colombia, France, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and several other countries in the joint Martillo mission.
Martillo is Spanish for hammer. Since the operation began in January 2012, it has seized about 200 metric tons of cocaine and 25,000 pounds of marijuana — a street value of approximately $3 billion, as well as $3.5 million in drug money. More than 340 suspected smugglers also have been detained, according to Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker, public affairs officer with the U.S. 4th Fleet.
While the Puma was being tested Friday, word reached the crew of the Swift that the Coast Guard was offloading at the Miami Beach base an estimated $27 million worth of cocaine seized from a 68-foot fishing boat cruising through the western Caribbean Sea — exactly where the Swift is going next to conduct three weeks of operational testing of the blimp and drone.
That seizure occurred April 18. Two days later, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine crew on a P-3 made an even bigger bust after spotting a speed boat carrying more than 3,300 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value of about $242 million in open waters off Panama.
The P-3 crew notified Panama, which sent three of its law enforcement boats to capture what turned out to be Colombian smugglers.
About 67 percent of all U.S.-involved drug busts in the Caribbean are now the result of multiple nations working together.
“That’s a big increase in what it used to be,” Harris said.
Harris also hopes the blimp and drones may be less expensive alternatives for countries in the partnership that can’t afford fixed-wing aircraft for surveillance, detection and monitoring.
“I was just in Colombia talking about this very thing,” Harris said. “I showed them pictures on Facebook.”