Drug Control:

Aviation Program Safety Concerns in Colombia Are Being Addressed, but State's Planning and Budgeting Process Can Be Improved

GAO-04-918: Published: Jul 29, 2004. Publicly Released: Aug 3, 2004.

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The Department of State supports foreign governments' efforts to eradicate illicit drug crops. In recent years, State's Office of Aviation has maintained aircraft and provided support for the aerial eradication program of the Colombian National Police. However, eradication aircraft are often shot at from the ground requiring helicopter gunships and a search and rescue helicopter to accompany each mission. In 2003, the Office of Aviation fumigated more than 132,000 hectares of coca, a record amount. GAO examined (1) how the threat to the spray planes has changed since 2001, (2) what actions State has taken to address any operational safety concerns, and (3) what resources State provided for the expanding program during fiscal years 2001-04 and how it planned and budgeted for the program's growth.

In 2001 and most of 2002, the number of ground-fire hits on spray aircraft averaged fewer than 10 per month. But in late 2002 and during 2003, the number of hits increased--peaking at 73 in January 2003 and averaging more than 26 per month--and, in 2003, two spray aircraft crashed and two were forced to land because of ground fire. Moreover, the number of flying hours for spray aircraft more than doubled--from about 5,450 hours in 2001 to over 11,300 hours in 2003. In general, this meant the aircraft were exposed more frequently to the threat of ground fire, although other factors came into play. In response to the increased number of ground-fire hits, the Colombian National Police began providing two or three helicopter gunships for each eradication mission; this was in addition to the two Office of Aviation gunships that already accompanied every mission. Also, since January 2003, State has taken several actions to help reduce exposure to the threat of ground fire by making greater use of information about armed insurgents' proximity to spray targets. Since fiscal year 2001, State has significantly increased resources for the aerial eradication program in Colombia. Funding for the program doubled from about $49 million in fiscal year 2001 to $100 million for fiscal year 2003. In addition, from fiscal year 2001 to May 2004, personnel in Colombia who were directly involved with the program increased from 179 to 298, and the number of aerial eradication aircraft increased from 22 to 35. However, State does not prepare budgets that address all of the Office of Aviation's program requirements. Consequently, State often moves funds from one program to another, which may adversely affect those programs. In addition, State does not plan for the longterm costs of the aerial eradication program, such as aircraft replacement. As a result, State has postponed requesting funds for new aircraft.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The International Narcotics and Law (INL) Office of Aviation completed an initial version of a new strategic plan in April 2004 which addressed the aerial eradication program in Colombia as well as other INL aviation activities. According to an Office of Aviation official, the process included several days of participation by all aviation functional area managers, senior aviation advisors, Narcotics Affairs Sections (from respective overseas locations), and strategic planning personnel from the Office of Resource Management. The Strategic Plan included development of a mission statement, values and goal papers for each functional area (Admin/Contract support, IT/communication, logistics, maintenance, operations and safety). The strategic planning process addressed the day-to-day operational needs of the Office of Aviation's programs, a Critical Flight Safety Program for aircraft fleet refurbishment and Office of Aviation Reorganization Plans, which were incorporated into the INL FY 2006 Bureau Performance Plan and FY 2006 Budget Request. The strategic planning was updated during State's FY 2007 and FY 2008 budget cycle. Furthermore, according to the INL FY 2009 Bureau Strategic Plan, in 2006, INL determined that the existing system for managing its aviation programs needed to be reformed and improved. The bureau therefore undertook an aviation management initiative to unify the various aviation programs and develop effective strategic and capital asset planning, budgeting, reporting (both internal and external), and contract management. This initiative is intended to lead to an aviation fleet that is better aligned to meet the Department of State's strategic goals.

    Recommendation: To improve the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs' process for providing resources to the Office of Aviation, the Secretary of State should direct the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to develop and implement a strategic planning and budgeting process that addresses all of the program requirements for the Office of Aviation, including the aerial eradication program in Colombia. The strategic plan and budget should address the day-to-day operational needs of the Office of Aviation's programs, aircraft fleet refurbishment and eventual replacement, and the resources needed to meet these requirements. The plan should also be systematically updated as part of State's annual budget cycle.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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