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Adding Drones to the Drug War Arsenal

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The U.S. Defense Department's Southern Command (Southcom) has begun to test an unmanned air vehicle (UAV), or drone, for use in detecting and intercepting boats used to smuggle narcotics into the U.S., Time magazine reported June 8. 

Called the Heron, the UAV can fly undetected for more than 20 hours and stream high-quality, real-time video from as high as 15,000 ft. With many in Congress questioning the cost-effectiveness of the drug war, a UAV may be able to alleviate some of those concerns, backers say.

Drug cartels are increasingly using semisubmersibles and submarines to smuggle drugs into the U.S., but the Heron's ability to “perch and stare” for long periods makes it an effective tool for spotting and tracking these hard-to-detect targets, said P. W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute.

“Drones are best for the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, so this is a smart move,” said Singer. “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 political situation in South America has also changed — Ecuador's left-wing government recently closed a U.S. air base previously used to conduct drug-surveillance flights, for example – and Southcom believes that the UAVs are one of the best ways of compensating for such losses.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss), the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, believes the Heron is ready to take on actual missions, according to spokeswoman Margaret McPhillips.

The drones cost $6.5 million each and are manufactured by Stark Aerospace, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI).   

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