LCS Could Help the Coast Guard Fight Drug Trafficking

The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Spencer with captured narcotics (USCG file image)

By The Maritime Executive 02-16-2018 09:15:00

On Thursday, the commander of U.S. Southern Command gave the Senate Armed Services Committee an update on the state of the fight against Colombian drug-traffickers. A significant fraction of American cocaine busts occur in the Eastern Pacific, where the U.S. Coast Guard has developed a regular routine for intercepting seagoing smugglers en route to Central America.

"We have pretty good situational awareness on an awful lot of the trafficking," said Southcom commander Adm. Kurt W. Tidd. However, he echoed the concerns of Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zumwalt, who often notes that his service could do much more with this information if it had more cutters. Due to limited resources, Adm. Tidd said, "of the vessels that we know are transporting illicit material, we can intercept about 25 percent."

Tidd stressed the importance of the Coast Guard's Medium Endurance Cutters, which are the core of the U.S. law-enforcement effort in the Eastern Pacific. These vessels are aging out of service, and Tidd emphasized that their replacements - the Heritage-class Offshore Patrol Cutters under construction at Eastern Shipbuilding - will be essential to the counternarcotics mission. "As I have stated repeatedly, without U.S. Coast Guard cutters, USSOUTHCOM would have virtually no afloat maritime forces," he said. 

Tidd also expressed his desire to recruit the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships into Southern Command's operations. "I offer my unqualified support for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which we can leverage for multiple mission sets, including [detection and monitoring], [special operations] support, partner nation capacity building, and potentially [humanitarian assistance / disaster relief] response and medical engagements," he said. "LCS capabilities match our mission requirements perfectly, and we are working closely with the Navy to try and field them in our region. My view is that the sooner we can deploy these ships in theater, the greater the impact we can have on interdicting the flow of illicit drugs into our country." 

Notably, the proposed Southcom mission for LCS does not emphasize near-peer combat operations. The LCS' critics contend that the two designs in the class are ill-prepared for high-end warfare missions, due to a lack of heavy weaponry, questions about mechanical reliability, development problems with modular missions packages and the limits the Navy imposed on the vessels' survivability testing. The Navy is looking to phase out LCS production in favor of a conventional "future frigate," which is currently in the bidding stage.

Heroin is next 

While American officials are confident about their ability to locate and interdict cocaine shipments, Adm. Tidd said that the strategy for interdicting heroin is still a work in progress. Heroin - which was recently declared a public health emergency in the United States - does not travel by the same supply chain routes used for marijuana or cocaine. It is generally sourced from Colombia (found in the U.S. East Coast market) and from Mexico (found in the U.S. West Coast market), with both streams crossing into the United States at the southern land border. Pinning down and intercepting these supply routes will require a new cooperative effort with international partners, Tidd suggested.