Budget Cuts Could Pull Navy Out of The War on Drugs

U.S. Coast Guardsmen unload 3,500 pounds of cocaine in Miami March 16, 2012. The crew seized the cocaine from a 35-foot vessel in the Caribbean Sea as part of Operation Martillo. US Coast Guard Photo

U.S. Coast Guardsmen unload 3,500 pounds of cocaine in Miami March 16, 2012. The crew seized the cocaine from a 35-foot vessel in the Caribbean Sea as part of Operation Martillo. US Coast Guard Photo

U.S. Navy frigates will stop patrolling for drug runners by April because of forced sequestration budget cuts, a Navy spokesman told USNI News on Monday.

On Saturday, U.S. 4th Fleet was informed by Navy leadership it would suspend deployments of two ships—part of the Joint Interagency Task Force South’s Operation Martillo—by April because of the 1 March sequestration cuts, said the 4th Fleet’s Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker.

“The cancellation and deferment of ship deployments to 4th Fleet is unfortunate,” Barker said. “We will remain hopeful that Congress will act so we can recover and continue those missions.”

Currently the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates USS Gary (FFG-51) and Thach (FFG-43) patrol the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific looking for drug runners  using either high-speed “go-fast,” boats or slow-moving, hard-to-detect drug submarine-like craft to smuggle hundreds of tons of cocaine and other drugs from South America into the United States.

With the frigates out of the picture, the amount of drugs entering the country will increase, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp told USNI News following Tuesday’s State of the Coast Guard address.

“We already don’t have enough surface assets down there to interdict all of the drugs that are smuggled from South America into North America,” Papp said.

“If those [frigates] go, we don’t have enough platforms to put Coast Guard Law Enforcement Teams on. We would be down to the point where we would only be using Coast Guard cutters and we don’t have enough [of those] to meet the demand JIATF South has for us.”

Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG-43) in 2011. US Navy Photo

Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG-43) in 2011. US Navy Photo

Along with Coast Guard cutters, help from Navy and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft and limited international involvement, the Navy helps stop about one-third of illicit drugs bound for the United States. Ships from the U.S. Navy and other international navies host U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments. The LEDET teams provide ships with the legal authority to interdict suspected traffickers and make arrests as necessary.

“The other complicated thing that goes beyond the U.S. Navy [is that] Great Britain used to provide a ship down there, the Dutch used to provide a ship, the French used to provide a ship and they are all having defense budget problems now and are withdrawing from the Caribbean,” Papp said.

The Navy planned to relieve the Gary with the San Diego, Calif. -ported USS Rentz (FFG-46) in April but with the cuts, Rentz would remain pierside. The Thach entered 4th Fleet in February and could be sent back to San Diego as early as the end of March, Barker said.

“Since we started Operation Martillo on 15 January 2012, partner nations have supported 67 percent of the law-enforcement interdictions of illicit traffickers,” read a statement from JIATF South that was provided to USNI News. “We will continue to look to these partners and employ the assets we have to maximize and sustain the successes we are now realizing against illicit traffickers.”

Since its start, Operation Martillo (Spanish for hammer) has intercepted more than 145,000 kilos (160 tons) of cocaine—worth about $4 billion—125 tons of marijuana, and $3.5 million in drug money, Barker said.

Flights of Navy P-3 reconnaissance aircraft based in El Salvador will continue for now, Barker said.

The Navy faces $9 billion in budget reductions for Fiscal Year 2013 if the current sequestration cuts stand and the services faces a yearlong Continuing Resolution.

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