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Border Blimps : Aerial Drug War Has Its Ups, Downs

Times Staff Writer

The sky was a brilliant blue and the wind made barely a ripple in the brown, winter grass. But the great white whale, the $18-million drug war blimp, was grounded.

Changing the frequency on the radar system was the reason given this time. It could easily have been something else, though--an electrical storm, freezing rain, high winds or just a glitch in the system. Any one is reason enough to bring down the blimp.

Blimps in drug law enforcement? It’s the latest government rage.

The U.S. Customs Service is building a fleet of these stationary balloons, properly called aerostats, to float high above the U.S.-Mexico border. Billed as a front line defender in the government’s multibillion-dollar campaign against illegal drugs, it is one of the most ambitious programs yet in the effort to stem the tide of narcotics smuggling.

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Tethered to Ground

Each tethered blimp, with radar that can scan a 150-mile radius, has the capability of looking deep into Mexico and tracking planes flying north toward the United States. Ideally, this gives Customs pilots time to scramble and intercept a suspected smuggler.

So far, however, there has been little direct evidence to justify the program’s hefty price tag. Critics say the use of the blimps, at best, will merely cause smugglers to take more devious routes over land and sea. Customs Service officials argue that any deterrence helps in the frustrating fight against illicit narcotics.

Yet, according to Customs’ own figures, the blimp spends only slightly less time on the ground than in the air.

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Bill Corlett, manager of the site here, said the reason is simple enough: The balloon is tied to the ground, and bad weather forces them to bring it down.

“Our defenses are merely to haul it in,” he said.

Poor Results So Far

There are those who would like to haul it in permanently, given the blimp’s track record. In its two months in operation the blimp, located at a remote site outside Deming, hasn’t helped to catch anything. (Strictly speaking, the blimp is still in its shakedown stage, to be turned over to the Customs Service within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, it is being used to monitor the thousands of aircraft that pass within radar range daily.)

Another aerostat, based at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., has been working for eight months with only a couple scores: two planes carrying marijuana. It has been used to find people who were lost, and others who were trying to avoid going through customs.

“It’s total garbage, a waste of time and resources,” Jack Blum, chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on narcotics, said of the aerostat program. “It will work--against anyone dumb enough to fly a small plane where the balloon will pick it up.”

But Customs, which hopes to put up four more blimps by the end of this year, contends that airborne drug traffic has decreased dramatically along the stretch of the border where the blimps stand guard.

“What Ft. Huachuca has done is made heroes of my sister bureaus around the country,” Gerald Young, the head of the Customs air branch in Tucson, said. “Seizures are up in San Diego and Texas. No one is flying through Arizona since the aerostat went up. Smugglers are going out of their way to go around the aerostat. We’re not being challenged in this area.”

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Here in Deming, the blimp is in an isolated spot about 15 miles from Mexico. Cattle from an adjacent ranch amble down the dirt road toward the aerostat base, a cluster of prefab buildings behind a high, chain-link fence. A guard at the gate keeps a wary eye for intruders. Overshadowing it all, literally, is the blimp, tethered to the ground by an inch-thick cable that is much stronger than steel.

Contractor-Run Base

Corlett, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, runs the small base, which was built by the government but staffed by Westinghouse Defense & Electronics Systems Co., makers of the blimp.

“Any fool can tell you whether it’s up or down,” said Corlett, a strong defender of the aerostat’s ability to deter smuggling. But, “if it leads to rerouting, going on the ground, finding different routes, then you have closed an avenue.”

The 233-foot-long blimp, which lifts more than two tons of radar equipment 15,000 feet above sea level, is designed to detect airplanes no matter how low they are flying. Signals from the blimp then go to March Air Force Base at Riverside, Calif., where Customs agents and technicians watch for suspicious aircraft--generally small planes with no flight plan filed, or ones that deviate from their flight plans.

Then, Customs is supposed to spring into action with its small air force, track the suspected smuggler and arrest the people on board when they land.

Smugglers are a wily sort, though, and there are all kinds of ways to get drugs across the border.

“It’s a real Swiss cheese out there,” said Frank Ault, a former fighter pilot and, for two years, a consultant to the Customs Service on air interdiction. Ault is not an ardent naysayer, but neither is he overly optimistic about the success of the blimps.

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“It’s going to be better than what we’ve had, but it’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “Remember, this smuggler is a pretty smart guy. He’s an aggressive enemy, and the countering of the interdiction effort is so maddeningly simple.”

Meanwhile, drug enforcement officials have noticed a sharp increase in drug traffic over land, causing them to speculate that smugglers are flying to Mexico and then transferring their cargoes to trucks for the final leg of the journey into the United States. That may not bode well for detection. According to a 1988 RAND Corp. report, “perhaps the lowest-risk mode of smuggling is that of crossing the U.S.-Mexico land border.”

Blum, the narcotics subcommittee investigator, said shipments in containers also have been on the increase, and that at best, Customs officials inspect about 2% of the goods unloaded each year at the nation’s docks. Some of the more interesting methods of shipment he has heard about recently, Blum said, are encasing the contraband in frozen shrimp and covering it with ripening papayas.

Foils Police Dogs

“What that does to (drug-sniffing) dogs is unbelievable,” he said.

The Customs Service does not agree that forcing smugglers to change their routes--from the air to the ground--would make the border crossing less risky. They also noted that with the armed forces expected to join the enforcement effort, there will be more manpower available for detection and monitoring.

“If we can get them to go by land and ship, it would make it easier, because the method of getting the goods across is slower,” said Harve Pothier, second in command of the Customs aviation arm.

With four more $18-million aerostats bobbing over the border, government officials say they will have a nearly impenetrable line of defense, an “electronic picket fence,” from California to the southern tip of Texas--and eventually all the way to the Caribbean.

That fence has been compared to the Maginot Line, the French defense system that was touted as impenetrable until the Germans bypassed it with ease at the beginning of World War II.

“It just means that one particular mode for bringing in drugs becomes less attractive,” said Peter Reuter, a RAND Corp. economist who has studied the interdiction process. “Let’s hear how the rest of the barricade is going to go up. I don’t think there is any clear vision of what they want to do. I am skeptical that (blimps) are going to make much difference.”

Though the blimps are costly, boosters say the program is considerably cheaper than using aircraft-borne radar platforms 24 hours a day. According to the Customs Service, the cheapest alternative would cost at least three times the $3 million a year it will cost to maintain each of the six planned aerostat sites.

Detractors say the blimps are the proverbial “camel’s nose in the tent,” and that federal spending against drugs, now at $4 billion a year, could skyrocket if Customs then seeks to expand its air force to better track the blips on the radar screen that match the drug runner’s profile.

Meanwhile, the debate goes on. Blum likened the blimp effort to “trying to shut down General Motors by arresting all the used car salesmen.” Reuter, of the RAND Corp., called it “perfectly good microthinking.”

But Young, of the Customs air wing in Tucson, took an entirely different view.

“You’re talking about water in a glass. Is it half empty or half full?” he said. “If I can get 60% or 70% radar coverage, versus nothing, then I have gained a lot.”


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