WASHINGTON — After quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to expand the unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, according to U.S. officials.
The move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles covered by the department’s fleet of nine drones, which are used primarily on U.S. borders.
But the high-tech aircraft have had limited success spotting drug runners in the open ocean.
The drones have largely failed to impress veteran military law officers in charge of finding and boarding speedboats, fishing vessels and makeshift submarines ferrying cocaine and marijuana to America’s coasts.
“The question is: Will they be effective? We have no systematic evidence on how effective they are,” said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counternarcotics efforts at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
Despite that, a new control station will arrive this month in Corpus Christi, allowing Predators based in Texas to cover more of the Gulf. An additional drone will be delivered this year to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s base in Cocoa Beach, Fla., for operations in the Caribbean.
The Federal Aviation Administration has already approved a flight path for the drones to fly more than 1,000 miles to the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.