On April 2, 1987, the US Navy frigate McCloy hailed a Bahamian lobster boat in the Caribbean Sea southwest of Cuba. Instead of responding with a laid-back island greeting, the lobster boat turned and rammed McCloy twice. Warning bursts of .50-caliber machine gun fire stopped the battering. A Coast Guard antidrug squad sailing with the Navy boarded and found 200 bales of marijuana. The crew was arrested and the vessel seized.
As this tropical skirmish shows, the United States military is already on the front lines of the drug war. Navy ships, Air Force radars, and Army helicopters are among the weapons now used to intercept drug shipments headed for America's streets.
Frustrated by the flood of narcotics that continues to flow across American borders, Congress is currently pushing for an increase in armed forces' antidrug efforts. But some Pentagon officials worry that the trend toward militarization of the drug fight, which began in earnest seven years ago, is on the edge of going too far.
``I am opposed to anything that would put the military in a direct law enforcement role,'' says Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci.
Strictly speaking, one US armed force is already involved in law enforcement. The Coast Guard - which shares primary drug interdiction responsibilities with the Customs Service - considers itself part of the military. Coast Guard ships become part of the Navy fleet if US armed forces are mobilized for war.
Army, Navy, and Air Force antidrug missions are now limited primarily to support actions such as surveillance, transport, security, and equipment loans. Overall, 16,300 military plane flying-hours were devoted to antidrug sorties last year, according to Pentagon officials. Navy vessels contributed 2,500 days worth of ship patrols. Direct cost to the Pentagon for efforts to curb the drug smuggling was about $67 million.
Placement of four- to six-man Coast Guard detachments on Navy ships operating in known smuggling areas is one of the most successful of US antidrug techniques.
Last year's seizure of the frigate-ramming lobster boat was one such operation. Navy-Coast Guard teams nabbed 20 drug-running ships in 1987, according to a Coast Guard report.
Other Defense Department contributions to the drug war include the use of ground radars, helicopters, and patrol planes.
Military help in inderdicting smuggled drugs began seriously in 1981. That year Congress relaxed provisions of the Posse Comitatus law, an 1878 act which prohibits employment of armed forces as police, to allow law enforcement use of military intelligence.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 pulled the Pentagon further into the drug interdiction war by mandating such moves as loans of military equipment. In April 1986, President Reagan signed a classified directive naming drugs a threat to US national security and calling for an expanding Defense Department antidrug effort.
This month, in a burst of enthusiasm, both the Senate and House have passed amendments to defense authorization bills which call for yet more military involvement in drug interdiction.
The Senate's legislation would make drug fighting an official military mission and would provide $30 million for the National Guard to help with US border inspections. In addition, military personnel would be empowered to make arrests outside US territory or waters. Currently, military personnel have no authority to arrest anyone for infractions of domestic law.
The more-sweeping House version of the authorization bill would allow military arrests on US soil, and interdiction patrols of US troops along the nation's southern border. It calls for the President to ``substantially halt'' drug smuggling within 45 days of enactment.
A House-Senate conference has yet to hammer out a compromise between these two positions, and final votes have yet to be taken. But some sort of expansion of the military's antidrug role seems inevitable.
Pentagon officials say they are resigned to this fact, but many are clearly unhappy about it. They worry that a new emphasis on drug fighting will siphon money from more traditional missions and affect military readiness. According to a Joint Chiefs of Staff estimate, deeper involvement in drug fighting would require 66 new AWACS planes, at a total cost of $14 billion, among other equipment.
But for both the military and the country at large the most important issue involved with the current congressional push is whether the armed forces will have arrest powers. ``That's the big step,'' notes a congressional researcher who works on drug issues.
Members of Congress say the drug fight is a war - ``chemical war'' in the words of Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia - and that the military's job is to fight wars on the front line.
Other analysts point out, however, that the front lines of the drug war are now shifting from interdiction to discouragement of use. The picture of soldiers seizing drug runners is a ``powerful image,'' notes Harvard public policy professor Mark Moore. But the size of the smuggling challenge is so immense that the US simply cannot be surrounded by some impenetrable ring of steel.
``Interdiction alone will probably never result in more than a short-term or relatively small reduction in drug availability,'' notes a recent report by Congress's own Office of Technology Assessment.
Ironically, while Congress debates the Pentagon's antidrug efforts, the Coast Guard has been hurt by lack of money and attention. Cuts in the fiscal year 1988 budget have led to an immediate 55 percent reduction in scheduled drug patrols by Coast Guard cutters based in the South, according to a report by a Coast Guard Seventh District commander, Rear Adm. H.B. Thorsen.
Defense takes on role of policing drug smugglers
The Defense Department role in the war against drug smugglers is already substantial. Primary contributions include:
Coast Guard detachments. These law-enforcement teams, which are based on Navy ships, operate in known smuggling areas. Navy muscle can be used to stop suspicious ships; Coast Guard personnel, unlike their military counterparts, can under current law legally conduct searches and make arrests if contraband is found.
Ground radars. Smuggling planes can easily sneak under civilian air traffic control radar. To help plug this low-level gap, the Air Force operates two balloon-mounted radars called ``aerostats'' in Florida - one at Cape Canaveral, the other at Cudjoe Key. A Navy aerostat also watches for drug traffic from the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Helicopters. The Customs Service has found that the most effective aircraft for grabbing drug planes is the Army's Blackhawk helicopter, according to a congressional study. Blackhawks are fast, have a long range, and can carry a large arrest team. Customs and the Coast Guard now have a handful of these copters on loan. They are often deployed to the Bahamas or some other island for special drug operations.
Patrol planes. The Pentagon's most powerful radar surveillance planes on occasion run antidrug patrols with civilian law enforcement agents aboard. Air Force E-3A AWACs crews flew 482 sorties in 1986 in support of Customs Service operations, for instance. In addition, four Navy E-2C Hawkeye radar planes are among the military items now on loan to law enforcement agencies.