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Task Force Steps Up Drug War

Monitoring of Caribbean drug smugglers may include use of AWACS, aircraft carrier. INTERVIEW: VICE ADM. JAMES IRWIN

US military forces are rapidly stepping up the war against drug smugglers - but officers won't say how they are doing it. Vice Adm. James Irwin, commander of Joint Task Force Four (JTF-4), wants to keep drug traffickers guessing.

The newly formed task force has units of the United States Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, and Coast Guard at its disposal. But the admiral won't comment on how many ships, planes, and military satellites are hunting down the drug cartels.

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This military secrecy has fueled rumors in south Florida. Among the reports about JTF-4's operations:

AWACS radar planes operated by the Air Force are tracking clandestine drug flights across the Gulf of Mexico.

Navy combat ships, including an aircraft carrier, are operating off the coast of Colombia, where they are monitoring illegal drug shipments.

Navy or Air Force radar was used recently to spot a major drug flight which was intercepted and forced to turn back toward South America.

Admiral Irwin, interviewed at his new Caribbean command headquarters here just down the road from the historic ``Truman White House,'' refuses to confirm or deny such reports. In the past, he says, government officials have too often tipped their hands to drug smugglers.

``My experience prior to coming here was that other agencies talked an awful lot about what they were doing,'' he explains.

``You could pick up most any trade journal or magazine and find out what their assets were and how they were employing them. If a person were interested in smuggling drugs, he could get quite a bit out of that.

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``I'd rather they don't know exactly what we are doing. And I'll try to protect that as long as I can.''

Irwin's JTF-4, along with Joint Task Force Five in the Pacific, is operating with a strong new mandate from Congress and President Bush to tackle the drug crisis. Their job is threefold:

1.Detect and monitor illegal drug shipments to the US.

2.Coordinate detection efforts by other organizations, such as US Customs.

3.Gather tactical intelligence against drug traffickers, and fuse that data with intelligence from other organizations.

Detecting drug smugglers with radar and satellites could be a major help to law enforcement agencies. But the admiral says good intelligence is even more critical.

Irwin notes the importance of intelligence in this same area during World War II. Germany was operating six submarines in the Caribbean against Allied ships. Even though the Germans were in hostile waters with no friendly ports for refueling and supplies, they posed a serious menace.

The US deployed over 200 ships and planes and 100,000 servicemen against the U-boats. But it was only when the US got intelligence on the subs that American forces were successful.

Irwin says: ``In our case, instead of six [subs], there are probably several hundred enemies [drug boats and planes] out there. And they are operating in relatively friendly waters. They have all kinds of ports they can go to. They don't have any logistic problems. And they've got unlimited ... money.

``So, we have a tougher problem [than in World War II]. You can't blanket it [the Caribbean] with radar and expect to solve the problem. You've got to narrow down all those targets.''

To pick out the right targets among thousands of boats and planes crisscrossing the Caribbean requires pinpoint intelligence. Such an effort will require the full range of military resources - satellites, air and sea radar, tracking planes, and input from informers. It could also involve the wider US intelligence community, from the CIA to the National Security Agency.

The admiral concedes the difficulty of the task. He recently told Sea Power magazine:

``We're babes in the woods at this business. DOD [Department of Defense] never has undertaken and coordinated a drug-interdiction operation of this magnitude before, and we have a tremendous amount to learn.''

To get the job done, Irwin will eventually pull together a staff of 115, drawn from DOD, the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs, the FBI, and other agencies. The task force will use military forces from all services to conduct specific operations aimed at drug smugglers.

There is wide agreement that until now the government's efforts to stop the flow of cocaine have been inadequate. Irwin says the drug crisis grew so quickly that it outpaced civilian law enforcement.

``Customs and the Coast Guard have been doing an awful lot,'' he says. ``I wouldn't want anyone to have the feeling that I didn't think they were....

``It's just that the problem keeps getting bigger and bigger, and they keep interdicting more and more [drugs]. But it's bigger than they are.''

The admiral, a graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy in 1953, was commander of Coast Guard Atlantic and the US Maritime Defense Zone Atlantic before assuming command of JTF-4 in February, when it was formed.

Irwin hopes that fresh resources from the military will put the government a step ahead of the drug cartels for the first time, and begin to get the problem of smuggling under control.

Although the Pentagon long resisted a part in the drug war - especially under the Reagan administration - that seems to have changed in recent months.

``The higher echelons and the decisionmakers ... are behind it,'' Irwin says. As for the people out manning the ships and planes: ``They are extremely up-tempo, up-beat, and very much involved. It has been very gratifying.''

Can the military halt the drugs coming into the US?

``You will find that we will make a significant impact,'' he promises. ``We're not going to stop all the drugs.... But I think we will make a very big impact.''

One in a series of occasional articles about US border problems.

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