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Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Blimp new superhero in war on drugs
Navy looks toward sky to curb fast boats headed here

The blimp attached to the strange looking ship at the Outer Mole Pier this week could breathe new life into the drug war that's been battered by recent budget cuts.

And no, the giant tethered aerostat known locally as "Fat Albert" didn't drift down to Key West from its Cudjoe Key home.

The Navy-rented high-speed, 321-foot Swift is in Key West with a crew of military contractors and sailors preparing for Friday's test of a 76-foot tethered aerostat system developed by Raven Aerostar, the same company whose blimps keep watch over American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Navy 4th Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker.

While Fat Albert floats at 15,000 feet, this smaller aerostat will float closer to 2,000 feet attached to the Swift and possibly other Navy vessels, where it will help locate go-fast or other suspected drug boats, Barker said.

Also being tested this week from the flight deck of the Swift is the small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Puma AE. Navy commanders hope the 4.6-foot drone will work closely beside the aerostat to help deter drug smuggling, said AeroVironment developer Matt Vogt, a former Marine pilot who works for the company developing systems for the Navy.

"The idea is to fuse the two systems together," Vogt said.

Overseeing the whole project is Capt. Ian Pollitt, who would love nothing more than to report back to 4th Fleet commanding officer Rear Adm. Sinclair M. Harris that the systems work well and are ready for work in Operation Martillo, the multinational effort aimed at curbing major drug cartel smuggling of mainly cocaine and marijuana into the United States.

"None of this technology is new," Pollitt said. "What's new is bringing these capabilities together to achieve our mission in lieu of multibillion-dollar frigates. That is the new reality and there's no free lunch, so we're here to get these platforms downrange and make it happen."

Much of the intelligence gathering for Operation Martillo is done just a stone's throw from the Outer Mole Pier at Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF) at Truman Annex, the multi-agency organization made up of military and federal enforcement that tracks narcotic smuggling.

The Swift's visit and the testing of the two systems comes just a month after the Navy announced they were pulling two frigates from JIATF's area of operations in the Caribbean Sea.

The aerostat and UAV trials were scheduled regardless of the recent across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, but the timing does add a bit of pressure to the system testing, Barker said.

He added that JIATF has tactical control of the hardware, and the private company that owns and operates the Swift -- Sealift Inc. of New York -- will have operational control over the odd-looking ship that uses personal watercraft-style water jets to propel it at speeds north of 50 mph.

Though Pollitt is the commanding naval officer aboard the Swift, the final say and driver of the ship is Sealift Inc. commanding officer Nick St. Jean, who agreed that the command structure of the Swift is confusing.

The former Merchant Marine says piloting the speedy water jet vessel has spoiled him.

"She can drain an Olympic-sized swimming pool at speed," he said, smiling.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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