LITTLE noticed in the uproar over US plans to position an aircraft carrier off the Colombian coast is the fact that US radar planes are already there, patrolling international airspace deep in the Caribbean in search of drug smugglers. Among other US surveillance planes, Coast Guard E-2C Hawkeyes now fly out of Puerto Rico toward the northern edge of South America, according to US officials. These turboprops, identical to Hawkeyes based on every Navy carrier, carry a large radar capable of spotting a twin-engine plane 200 miles away.
The presence of United States warships would simply have made this operation more thorough. ``There are lots of advantages to having a carrier there,'' says a US government official.
But there will not be one there anytime soon. President Bush last week called Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas to promise that no US naval action would take place without Colombian concurrence. The carrier John F. Kennedy and the cruiser Virginia stopped and conducted exercises off the Florida coast, rather than proceeding southward.
The plan appeared to be the victim of a post-Panama policy backlash. Colombia reacted vehemently to the appearance of US muscle-flexing off its coast so soon after the ousting of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Other Latin American nations took the chance to make some not-so-subtle jabs: a Cuban Foreign Ministry statement called on Latin American nations to ``close ranks to halt the attempts by the Bush administration to `Panamize' the region.''
US-Colombia relations thus appeared to worsen considerably only weeks before a drug summit scheduled to be held in Colombia. In pre-summit negotiations in Bolivia between the US, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, the three South American nations ruled out the use of US military to police international waters as part of plans to interdict drug traffic.
But it might be wrong to draw the conclusion that no US aircraft carrier will ever cruise off the Colombian coast. White House statements on the issue were carefully crafted, promising only to not conduct operations in Colombian territorial waters. The Navy had not planned to do that, anyway. The Kennedy probably would have operated about 100 miles off the Colombian coast. (The US recognizes a 12-mile territorial sea limit.)
The perception in Washington was that the carrier plan might go forward in the future, after passions on the matter cool.
Both the carrier and the cruiser Virginia carry air-search radars that would be of some use in tracking drug runners flying north from Colombia and Venezuela. The real advantage of the carrier, though, would be its ability to support increased radar aircraft operations. The carrier air wing's own Hawkeyes would undoubtedly be used - and the Coast Guard's E-2Cs could be refueled, allowing them to spend much more time on station.
Use of the US Navy was thus meant to address one of the shortcomings of US antidrug forces - lack of long-range air-search capability. While the Hawkeye has a powerful radar, it has a relatively short range. The Hawkeye's useful cruising time is five to six hours. Both the Coast Guard and the Customs Service are in the process of developing and buying search planes with longer ranges.
Customs in June took delivery of its second P-3 AEW (Airborne Early Warning.) This hybrid plane takes a radar similar to that used on E-2Cs and sticks it on the back of a four-turboprop P-3 anti-submarine warfare plane. Its endurance capability is 14 hours, according to Customs.
The Coast Guard is experimenting with mounting the same radar on the back of another type of long-range plane, the C-130. The Coast Guard has long used C-130s for search-and-rescue missions, and figures that one with a rotodome on its back for radar will average 10 hours' endurance.
Proposed use of the Navy flotilla off Colombia grew out of a request by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney that top US commanders submit suggestions for the use of their forces in drug interdiction. Though Customs and the Coast Guard have in the past shared main responsibility for sealing US borders off from smugglers, in 1986 Congress passed legislation naming the Pentagon the ``lead agency'' in surveillance and tracking of suspected drug runners.
Military personnel have not yet been turned into drug police. Law enforcement agencies are required to make the actual arrest of suspects. Navy ships sometimes carry teams of Coast Guard officers for this purpose.
And in the end, drug war successes are often not so much a matter of vigilance as of knowledge. Last year a congressional General Accounting Office report estimated that more than half of all air cocaine shipments seized were caught because federal agents had intelligence about them before they took off.