by Master Sgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force News Service
AIR STATION, Panama -- The commander of the American forces on the front lines of the drug war said it could take years to win the fight against drug smugglers.
But closer collaboration between Latin American nations fighting drug smuggling could help speed up that process, said Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, commander in chief of U.S. Southern Command.
"We understand that this struggle against drugs will take decades," McCaffrey said after the July 31 opening ceremony of the command's multinational exercise, Fuerzas Unidas-Counterdrug '95.
Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador sent air force teams to take part in the three-day command post exercise aimed at improving cooperation between the participating nations' military drug-fighting forces. Panama sent observers.
"The air forces represented here are only one small aspect of that effort. But it's one of the things we do best," McCaffrey said.
Last year the command spent about $153 million on the drug war. "We flew about 1,000 U.S. Air Force missions in support of some aspect of this drug struggle," McCaffrey said.
Efforts to stop drug traffickers with the help of military forces have intensified recently. In the past four months, Colombian and Peruvian air force planes have "engaged 17 drug aircraft in the air or on the ground," McCaffrey said. And just last week, a Peruvian air force jet -- guided by an American radar plane -- shot down a light plane that drug smugglers were flying over Peruvian air space.
The United States operates ground-based radars in Colombia and Equador, run by Air Force members. American airmen -- often accompanied by their Latin American counterparts -- also fly aboard airborne warning and control system aircraft in support of the counter drug effort.
The objective of the exercise is to create an "environment where participants will be encouraged to share information and better cooperate with each other when dealing with suspected drug traffickers," said Lt. Col. Vincent R. Broderick, the exercise's main planner.
Participants will occupy their own command center in a building and only interact through proper communications channels, simulated by telephone lines. Each team will operate a simulated radar site.
"Everything will be simulated -- taking place within a building," Broderick said. "Basically, we'll set up the situations and then turn the exercise loose to the participants -- and see where it goes."
The average site will handle about 30 to 40 commercial airliners per hour, Broderick said. "Then we'll throw in suspect -- hostile -- flights."
This is the first exercise of this type Argentina's air force is taking part in. Brigadier Ricardo Ciaschini, the air force's chief of plans, said participating gave him "professional and personal satisfaction."
Ciaschini said his delegation welcomed the opportunity to share experiences and pass on what is being done to fight the drug trade in his country. "Air forces are known for their coordination and rapid reaction," he said. "This is an ideal occasion to better those capabilities."
The exercise is the latest in a series of multinational exercises sponsored by the command, based at Quarry Heights, Panama. The three-day exercise has three specific aims to foster closer cooperation:
-- Regional detection and monitoring, tracking and interdiction, staff coordination and allied nation counter-contraband policies.
-- Planning, coordinating and conducting "hot pursuit" (of suspected drug aircraft) procedures in cross-border operations.
-- The exchange of time-sensitive intelligence and information.
-- "This exercise is based on regional cooperation since this (narcotrafficking) is a common enemy which doesn't respect sovereign borders," McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey said he believes that -- eventually -- the war against drugs and drug traffickers in every country will be won by the police, lawmakers and in schools. "So, where we can, we will help," he said.