WASHINGTON - After quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, the Los Angeles Times reports, quoting unnamed U.S. officials.
The move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles now covered by the department's fleet of nine surveillance drones, which are used primarily on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders.
But the high-tech aircraft have had limited success spotting drug runners in the open ocean. The drones have largely failed to impress veteran military, Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Agency officers charged with finding speedboats, fishing vessels and makeshift submarines ferrying tons of cocaine and marijuana to America's coasts.
"The question is: Will they be effective? We have no systematic evidence on how effective they are," said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counter-narcotics efforts at the University of Miami.
Despite that, a new control station will arrive this month in Corpus Christi, Texas, allowing Predators based there to cover more of the Gulf of Mexico. An additional drone will be delivered this year to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's base in Cocoa Beach, for operations in the Caribbean.
The Federal Aviation Administration already has approved a flight path for the drones to fly more than 1,000 miles to the Mona Passage, between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The Predator B is the drone used by the CIA to find and kill al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen. An unarmed version patrols the U.S. borders searching known smuggling routes.