PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Relaxed relations with the Soviet Union have allowed the North American Aerospace Defense Command to shift more of its resources to another threat: South American drug smugglers.
But NORAD's commander, Gen. Donald J. Kutyna, believes that every time the United States ups the ante, the cocaine cartel will counter with money and stealth.
"The way you're going to stop the drug war is at the user level, you're not going to stop it at the interdiction level," said Kutyna, a four-star general and Vietnam veteran who assumed command of NORAD in April.
"Remember the Ho Chi Minh trail? Well, we bombed them (the North Vietnamese), we napalmed them, everything else in the whole world. We still couldn't stop them.
"The druggie is always going to find an innovative way to get in. We're going to make it tougher for them, we're going to make it more costly, we're going to deter some by putting them in jail. But the price of that stuff is high enough that they're (smugglers) going to keep trying."
NORAD is a joint United States-Canadian command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base and inside the top-secret Cheyenne Mountain global eavesdropping complex, both at Colorado Springs. Their listening posts span the globe and extend into space.
In a recent interview, Kutyna said that involving his troops in the drug war has boosted morale and sharpened skills.
"It gives us a lot of good practice that we weren't getting before," Kutyna said. "Before, we had to hire Lear jets or T-33s to fly as enemy intruder targets. Now we've got real targets out there who are really trying to evade us as if their life depends on it, they're a lot more motivated.
"So our crews are scrambling at them, several scrambles a day . . . something like 51 actual intercepts this year. It's keeping (our crews) sharper. Sitting at alert for hour after hour, day after day, is kind of dull," he said.
"It's very good for morale. I think probably my highest morale troops are the guys involved with drug interdiction, from the intelligence segment to the pilots flying intercepts to the guys working in radar, because we're really doing something worthwhile."
Among its assets in the drug war, NORAD has 41 ground radar sites in the continental United States and 13 in Alaska; tethered Aerostats (radar balloons) in Florida and the Southwest; about 60 fighter planes at 30 alert locations, and a fleet of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes.
Before Iraq invaded Kuwait, 42% of the Air Force's AWACS missions were flown against potential drug smugglers. Nearly three weeks after the invasion, a NORAD spokesman said that percentage was still "about the same."
"That's a very costly way of chasing druggies," said Kutyna, who favors a broader, ground-based overlapping radar net--the experimental Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar system.
"I can't get Congress to fund it. I don't know if it's politics, or just a matter of money, but they have declared that the drug war is over, we don't have to worry about it anymore and therefore we don't need it."
Kutyna said drug smugglers have switched their main route into the United States from the Caribbean to Mexico.
"Sixty to 70% of the drug traffic now coming into the States is through Mexico," Kutyna said. "At first they used to fly right up through Mexico and across our border. We've precluded that with AWACS patrols there, we've got radar on balloons. So we've kind of shut down the border, much better than it was before, though they can still sneak through every once in a while."
The 1989 National Defense Authorization Act assigned the Defense Department as the front-line agency in the fight against the drug barons. Initially, the Pentagon resisted involvement in the domestic "war," but as the Cold War wound down, the military increasingly warmed to the new battle front.
This fiscal year the Defense Department will spend an estimated $450 million against drug smugglers; next year, $1.2 billion is budgeted.
Still, they have their work cut out for them. Military experts estimate that about 220,000 tons of cocoa leaves are grown in Andean rain forests every year, and that between 3,000 and 5,000 sea trips and up to 3,500 aircraft flights annually bring cocaine to as many as 3 million American users.
Federal law prohibits the military from arresting smugglers or firing upon them; the NORAD crews can intercept planes and force them to turn back, or track them until they land and tip off other law enforcement agencies as to their whereabouts.