Fighting the war on drugs in the Air Force

During my Air Force career, I had two specific involvements in the War on Drugs. The first was flying F-15s at Holloman AFB; the second was on the Air Combat Command staff. One was direct involvement flying counterdrug surveillance missions out of Panama. The second was as the major command point of contact for sourcing Air Force assets supporting counter drug operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

One was operational, flying and supervising missions; the other attempting to provide support to Joint military commands and other agencies attempting to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, balancing the requirements from the commanders in the field with the Air Force resources, including air and ground-based radar surveillance systems and interceptors, e.g., fighters. As you might expect, field commanders (aka Warlords) always put forward requirements exceeding Air Force ability to fill – this causes great amounts of frustration from both sides we liked to call “creative tension.”

My first Counter Drug (aka CD) operation involved deploying F-15s to Howard AFB in Panama. Under the auspices of the USAF’s 12th Air Force, we took four F-15Bs down south to provide augmented air surveillance in the Caribbean as part of the grand plan to interdict drug running out of Colombia up in to Mexico and points north.

Howard AFB
Howard Air Force Base in Panama wasn’t exactly friendly territory at the time.

Our deployment was not too long before the ousting of Noriega as the head of the Panamanian government, so we went into a time and area of turbulence and unrest. The transit from Howard across the Panama Canal to the Southern Command headquarters was still not advisable after dark. Dangerous, not really, but caution and vigilance required – not everyone liked the Yankees.

We took the B-models, fondly known as “tubs” since they had a rear cockpit where an instructor or passenger could hop in for a flight. We were going to be flying almost exclusively at night, over water and outside of land, using a very early version of Night Vision Goggles, NOGS.

The second crewmember was aboard pretty much as a safety observer, since the Eagle cockpit was not set up for using NOGS in terms of displays and cockpit lighting. If we ever had the chance to intercept a drug running aircraft, it could be a Learjet at 30,000 feet scooting up to an airfield in the North. It would most likely be a light aircraft, like a Cessna, Piper or Beech, flying low and relatively slow.

We also knew these guys were good pilots, used to this environment, and we had intel they might have Fuzz Buster gear on board to warn of any radar surveillance. There was clearly a chance when we went down and slowed down for an ID, we’d see some evasive action, and disorientation using NOGS could be possible. The “passenger,” either another Eagle driver, or our flight surgeon who was on the trip to get some insight into this environment, would be a nice insurance for someone getting mesmerized with NOGS and a low altitude intercept to get the ID of a potential drug runner. As it turns out we adapted to the NOGS pretty well, and later versions were much more friendly for jet fighter and attack aircraft. But nothing wrong with caution at this stage of our proficiency.

We did one other thing to prepare for the CD mission. We scared up Eagles that were modified with a High Frequency Radio. Once upon a time there was a potential to deploy Eagles with an anti-satellite rocket (Laugh you may, but it was exercised once, and hit and destroyed a “dead” satellite—surprised everyone, since the satellite in question was not really meant to be killed!) and the launch basket was often well outside of the 200-mile or so UHF radio range.

We intended to use the HF to reach back to 12th Air Force, our operational headquarters in Texas, for target updates and other intel. Our HF experience was pretty poor. Seems like there is more black art to HF communications than either fighter pilots or voices from Texas were willing to fool with. But it was a thought, anyway.

For command and control, as well as communication, there was an Air Force ground-based radar a short distance from Howard serving as sort of an approach control, providing air traffic advisories for flying in Panama, and had some ability to search and track suspected drug traffickers. Its radar reach was not far out to sea, and while it was nice to have a voice on the radio to advise of weather and the like, it wasn’t really a significant asset for CD interdiction.

Later E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS) deployed in the area and, often supplemented by US Navy ships in the area, provided much better “dope” for the interceptors. But, we were on the leading edge of airborne CD ops, and were powerful, sophisticated soda straws looking for drug runners based on intel tippers from a plethora of good and lousy sources.

F-15
With its limited range and radar, the F-15 was not the best aircraft for the mission in Central and South America.

Later interceptors were not fighters but several types of aircraft with longer endurance and radars better for search, interception and tracking of blacked out aircraft in the Caribbean and the Pacific coast. Notable were P-3 class aircraft optimized for the mission and operated by Customs, the Coast Guard and “other agencies” after we left the area.

We were the first; other fighters followed, but all of us were expensive to operate, had limited endurance and not really suited for following a Cessna 206 for hours as it headed to a blacked-out strip in Central America or into Mexico where we could not follow. But it was our mission – we did it safely and might have caused some change in the tactics of the airborne druggies for a period of time.

A year or so after my Eagle experience at Holloman, I found myself at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, in charge of Contingency Operations for first Tactical Air Command, and later Air Combat Command. I arrived not long after the closing days of Desert Storm and was involved in the tasking and sourcing of Air Force units for the Middle East for a variety of missions, including air policing of Iraq and ops with our new-found friends along the southern edge of the Gulf of Arabia (or, depending on whose map, the Persian Gulf). This not the place for discussing how forces outsourced for commands that don’t actually have their own assets – planes, boats, or troops. Trust me, you don’t want to know how a four-star commander of Central Command or Southern Command sounds when he is not getting the piece of pie he deserves. Herding big cats is a job without reward… trust me.

Among our responsibilities were providing forces from the Air Force supporting the War on Drugs managed by Southern Command, a U.S. Army four star in Panama, and later Miami when we retrograded from Panama. There an alphabet soup of organizations that is in this business – Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) was the king, but there was also Joint Forces Command (a Navy four star at the time), Special Operations Command (SOCOM) the home of snake eaters, SEALs and Combat control teams, and of course my boss, the Air Combat Command Commander, the owner of most Air Force assets SOUTHCOM and others wanted.

Each of these senior officers has their own subordinate organizations that deign to give up resources without direction – persuasion seldom works. And, of course, there’s the Joint Staff, on the top of the heap, with all of its rice bowls and fiefdoms inside and outside of the Pentagon. Enough of the spaghetti.

Now on I’ll try to talk about things that make sense – hopefully. Oh, before I go there, I need to add in the National Guard – great guys and gals, but working with citizen soldiers demands working with a different set of rules. Fifty plus governors are in the game – by law in most cases.

The point I want to stress is the operators get on, and get the job done. Air Force C-130s deliver Army Rangers to the jump zone or the assault landing strip; Marine TRAP teams go without hesitation into a war zone to pick up an Air Force pilot on the run; in Vietnam an Army Cobra landed in a hot zone and picked up an Air Force pilot for a ride on an external fuel tank (that Captain became the Air Force Chief of Staff).

Now, on the other hand, among the support forces, it isn’t always that collegial – in almost every instance money is the root of the problem. One example: The Air Force had Joint Staff direction to station an AWACS at Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads for CD operations in the Caribbean. The Station commander demanded Air Force provide Air Traffic control during the night time when the airfield was closed for operations. The Air Force answer was, nope, it is your airfield and we are directed to operate there. It was a low-level pissing contest with no resolution amongst equals.

So, the trading began.

Pentagon
Where the real battles are often fought.

For the quarterly Counter Drug Conference held in the Pentagon, the Joint Forces Command J-3 (an admiral) was normally granted a seat on the Air Combat Command chopper that took off at Langley and swung by Norfolk to give the “3” a lift to the Pentagon helo pad along with the ACC Operations Deputy for a speedy, traffic-free ride to DC and back. A subtle call to the “3” staff reminding of a courtesy of value. Shortly thereafter a phone call was made from Navy in Norfolk to Navy at Roosey Roads “highly” recommending a much more cooperative attitude, and perhaps some operational budget help covering the additional work load.

Deal done – mission on.

The ACC contribution to CD ops was: interceptors out of the normal US-based NORTHCOM alert force, fighters, including those from the Air National Guard deployed to Howard and on a few other occasions at airfields in the Caribbean; E-3 AWACS for broad area surveillance and direction of Air Force and other interceptors against potential drug running aircraft (and in some cases boats of suspicious nature); ground-based Tactical Radars on temporary duty at various Caribbean islands – some pretty plush places – almost next door to a Sandals resort, others airlifted to spartan bases along routes of drug runners, and when detected, hand off targets for following and further investigation.

There was a variety of other assets, including various off-the-shelf aircraft fitted with F-16 radars, and even a couple of Aerostats (blimps) also with radars slung underneath tethered in various locations along the southern border. There were other players making significant, costly contributions in the CD operation: Navy ships, Coast Guard aircraft and cutters, DEA assets, Customs and Border Patrol, and elements of just about every intelligence agency in the U.S.

Our office at Langley was in up to our ears in CD. We sourced Air Force assets, collaborated with Joint Commands for scheduling and rotation of units and tried to balance the “hurt” across the force. All this was going on while there were still pretty intense ops in the Middle East and the military was beginning to reap the benefits of the “Peace Dividend.” Every day was interesting, and the days started early and ended late, and usually ate up good parts of the weekends.

One time, the Air Force Association chapter at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro asked if someone from the ACC staff could provide a briefing on the Air Force involvement in CD operations. Good for community relations. There were some off-the-shelf briefings telling the Air Force role in CD well. Seymour was about three hours’ drive from Langley so I finished a day of work and drove down for a luncheon occasion the next day.

The meeting was at the Officers’ Club and attendance included active duty personnel and more than a few from the surrounding community. There were two gentlemen from nearby Kinston. They were well dressed in Southern style – seersucker and blue oxford – and attentive to every bit of the presentation. They asked several questions showing they were thinking deeply about the mission and the assets in play. I enjoyed the exchange.

Cessna 310
The missing element from the War on Drugs?

After the lunch, we were all heading for the door when the Kinston guys pulled me off to the side and got serious. I reckon they were in their 60s and still fit. After a few minutes, they got formal – they struck a pose near attention – as good as you can get in penny loafers and mufti. “Colonel, you guys are out manned. You need help – we have friends and we can give it. We have our airplanes – both had nice twins – we are IFR qualified, and we still have our uniforms. We have guns and we are ready to help.”

They were serious. They were vets – military pilots years ago. They were ready for duty. I was without words for a few seconds, then I thanked them for their offer to serve, but suggested we weren’t ready to take that route. But, in my mind’s eye I pictured these guys with leather helmets, NOGS, leather jackets, white silk scarves and khaki pants, in a Cessna turbo or a Piper twin closing from behind on a similar blacked-out drug runner – maybe a someone in the shotgun seat or behind with a high beam spotlight, a Very pistol, and perhaps, a Browning Automatic Rifle protruding out a window as a persuader for following to landing – doesn’t sound bad, does it?

It was a great feeling to know we had the backing of Americans like these gentlemen. I was quickly reminded why I enjoyed serving and visiting places like Goldsboro. There are patriots everywhere – but sometimes they are not easy to find, or meet. Not here – not Goldsboro. Not in the small communities where airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines make their homes for a few years, then move on with memories like the ones these Kinston guys refreshed for me.

The patriots are present. We are still involved in a war on drugs. Sadly, I have my doubts the operations we conducted in the early 1990s made much difference. I have no doubt it is vastly different today – I think – not so much moves in little planes, but comes over, around, and under our borders, north and south, and is even grown and manufactured in our country – legally in some cases. I hope we can somehow muster our national spirit and the type of resolve shown by the Kinston guys to make gains reducing the pain and tragedy drugs continue to cause across our country. The good guys are still out there!

2 Comments

  • When I was at WPAFB as a Civilian Engineer, I was tasked to do a review of the Anti-Sattelite Weapon (ASAT) mentioned before committing to the program by Fort Fumble (The Pentagon). The Team was headed up by a Two Star USAF General.

    The result was a pitch to Office of the SecDef. I briefed our review and was asked directly “Is this thing safe?” and “Will it work?”. My reply was nothing is 100% safe but I would fly the mission as it was as safe as it could be. My second answer was if I flew it, I’d have my crew chief be ready to paint a satellite on the airplane when I got back.

    For the record, I was right. Never did get a photo of the Eagle with the satellite kill on the airplane.

  • Rick
    Another part of my AF life was the TAC desk officer for the Eagle 1978-81. Part of that was ASAT. The PM was Col Randolph, later a four star. It was a tough shot but doable—as the kill proved. No doubt we cudda ben contenders.” Thanks for your insight.

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