Military Drugbusters

July 1, 1988

On patrol off the southern coast of Florida, an E-3 AWACS may be tracking 300 or more aircraft with its radar. Some of these are almost surely drug smugglers. Most of the cocaine entering the United States comes in through Florida, and about one-third of it is carried aboard light aircraft.

The aircrews know the typical flight profile of drug runners. This is of marginal benefit only. Sometimes, US authorities get a tip that helps them spot a smuggler amid the other air traffic, but that is unusual.

The odds are with the druggies. Last year, AWACS flew 591 hours of surveillance — at a cost of $2.6 million — against drug traffic for a net result of ten arrests and six seizures of illegal substances. It is improbable that any given surveillance intercept will be followed by successful identification, pursuit, and capture by Customs agents or other lawmen.

The druggies regard the risks as acceptable. Most of their shipments will get through, with profits ample to cover the losses. Only about twenty percent of those arrested for importing or distributing drugs are convicted in the courts, and of those found guilty, only twenty-nine percent spend more than five years in jail.

It is impossible to quantify the social and economic damage being done to the United States by the rampant sale and use of drugs. The public is alarmed, so in this election year, the politicians are scrambling to take action that will be visible to the voters. Thus, Congress has decided to draft the armed forces for the war on drugs.

At this writing, it is not clear what Congress expects the military to do. Thoughtful legislators know that calls to “seal the borders” amount to asking the impossible. Each year, more than 200,000,000 people cross our land borders. In addition, 330,000 vessels bring 4,000,000 passengers into US ports. Some 30,000,000 people land at US airports aboard 421,000 commercial aircraft.

Effective screening of that traffic would strain a police state. For a nation that bends over backward to ensure individual liberties, it is probably impossible. The druggies are very good at concealing their contraband.

For 200 years, the law of posse comitatus has wisely forbidden US armed forces to engage in civil search, seizure, or arrest. The law was modified recently to allow the military to “assist” civil authorities with surveillance and lending of equipment, but the basic provisions still stand. The Coast Guard, under control of the Transportation Department in peacetime, can take a more direct role, but it has had to scale back its operations since Congress and the Administration agreed six months ago to cut the budget.

The next step might be to loosen posse comitatus further so that military sniffer dogs and their handlers can work the borders and points of entry. They cannot do this now because of legal restrictions on civil search by the armed forces.

Military drugbusting is not a good idea for three seasons.

First, the military is not well suited for this mission. Armed forces are organized and equipped to fight wars, and warfare is an exercise in maximum force. Law enforcement, on the other hand, requires restraint, conceding suspects the benefit of doubt, and the use of minimum force. The military is not and should not be trained to operate that way.

Second, military drugbusting diverts resources from primary mission functions that have been weakened too much already. After last winter’s budget cuts, the series are finding it difficult to maintain combat readiness, and they have no assets to spare. Congress currently does not plan to provide any additional money for the drug mission.

The assumption seems to be that it can be handled as “incidental to normal training.” The military has gone about as far as it can in this regard. E-3 crews, for example, need training for surveillance and intercept of multiple fast-moving targets with the objective of vectoring fighters against them. They do not get the right kind of exercise by watching light, slow-moving aircraft on their scopes.

Third, the political and social implications are all wrong. Americans would soon realize that it is alien to their values to have the armed forces chasing down and arresting civilians. Should real military power ever be exerted, the uproar would be deafening.

Impressive efforts to eradicate illegal substances and halt the traffic in them have not led too much. In 1987, the United States — in cooperation with twenty-three other nations — destroyed 283 metric tons of opium, 5,046 metric tons of cocaleaf, and 17,585 tons of cannabis.

The fundamental problem is the booming market for drugs. According to survey data, thirty-seven percent of adult Americans have used illegal drugs at one time or another. Twelve percent had used drugs within a month of the survey. Ten percent of the US population is believed to be impaired to some degree by illegal drug use. The drug traffic will continue so long as this demand persists.

Voices as diverse as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger have warned that this is no job for the military. Congress and citizens expressing their views in opinion polls think other and citizens expressing their views in opinion polls think otherwise. So does columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who blusters that wise. So does columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who blusters that “our soldiers, sailors, and airmen are being paid to protect the national security. Let them earn their pay.”

Turning the armed forces loose on the druggies may sound, in the abstract, like a good idea to people with a limited understanding of how military power is applied. They may even get standing of how military power is applied. They may even get satisfaction from fantasies in which drug runners go down under the avenging fire of an F-15. They would find the reality a different thing altogether.