WASHINGTON - The drug fight in Colombia has turned into an air war in Congress.
Although the Senate and the House have agreed to send $1.3 billion in aid to combat drug production in the South American country, lawmakers are fighting over which helicopter to send, the lightweight and venerable Huey or the larger and longer-range Blackhawk.
Senators favor sending 60 Hueys, arguing that those transport helicopters are less costly. House members are pushing for 30 Blackhawks, saying they can take small- arms fire and keep on flying. The Blackhawks, these congressmen say, also can fly higher into the Andes to help wipe out the ever-expanding coca fields and processing labs, which provide 80 percent of cocaine on U.S. streets.
Lawmakers will soon begin meeting to work out their differences. Meanwhile, Colombian and Clinton administration officials are lining up on the side of the Blackhawk. An analysis by the U.S. Army also backed the larger helicopter, officials said.
Colombia's top military and police officials wrote Senate and House leaders last week saying that the Blackhawk is "the best aircraft for the mission," noting that it is 50 percent faster than the Huey, carries twice as many soldiers and has "redundant" systems, meaning that if one system is lost to ground fire or a mechanical failure it can keep flying.
A similar endorsement came last week from the top U.S. officer in the region, Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, who calls the Blackhawk "far superior" for the anti-drug mission.
The administration, with the support of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is drafting a letter to lawmakers arguing in favor of the Blackhawks, officials said.
Those who back the Blackhawk say it is the right helicopter for the perilous terrain and lethal environment of southern Colombia. To support their case, they say that a Huey flown by Colombian police was shot down in April by Marxist rebels using rifles and machine guns, while a Blackhawk that was hit with small-arms fire in the rear rotor in an anti-drug operation in May "limped" back to its base.
Despite such concerns, the Senate approved last week the Huey, a familiar sight during the Vietnam War, after a push by its manufacturer, Texas-based Bell Textron, and the state's congressional delegation. Other lawmakers said the move was economical, noting that 60 Huey II helicopters cost $188 million, while the 30 UH-60 Blackhawks cost $388 million.
"This is primarily a cost decision," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican in charge of foreign operations funding that includes the Colombian aid. "I think we have assured the Colombians they can successfully achieve their missions at a lower cost."
Twenty-two Texas House members arguing for the Huey said in a letter to top lawmakers this year, "We must find a way to expeditiously impact the entire regional drug campaign, and turn back this national security threat as decisively as possible. In proper numbers, the Huey II accomplishes this mission."
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the Colombians can have "two or more times the number of Hueys" for the cost of the Blackhawks. Stevens cautioned that if the cost to the United States for the Colombia drug fight becomes "overloaded" it might lose valuable support in the Senate. U.S. aid to Colombia was $309 million last year, up from $50 million in 1998.
Stevens said he also is worried, as are some other lawmakers, that the United States is creeping into a Colombian quagmire and might be transported there aboard the Blackhawk.
"The Blackhawks are fighting machines," he told senators in last week's debate on the bill. "They will be the tip of a sword going into another Vietnam if we are not careful." Stevens, a decorated pilot during World War II, called the Huey "a good machine. There is no reason for anyone to be ashamed flying the Huey in combat."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, home to Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., which builds the Blackhawk, urged lawmakers to let U.S. and Colombian military leaders "decide on what works best." Dodd's amendment to leave the issue to the military failed 47-51.
According to the Pentagon, the Blackhawk has a 300-mile range, compared with 196 miles for the Huey. The Blackhawk can fly as high as 20,000 feet, about 4,000 feet higher than the Huey. And the Blackhawk can carry a 22,000-pound load, 11,500 pounds more than the Huey.
Administration and Colombian officials say the cost savings from choosing the Huey over the Blackhawk could soon evaporate because of the need to train twice as many Huey pilots and a greater number of mechanics. In addition, the Hueys would require more hangar space and spare parts.
In an interview, Colombian Ambassador Luis A. Moreno said his government has built its anti-drug effort around the Blackhawk helicopter. "It's the result of a lot of consulting between our two governments," Moreno said.
Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez Acuna and the heads of the country's army, navy, air force and national police wrote to congressional leaders last week and said the additional Hueys "will pose a major logistic problem and extra efforts."
The Blackhawks, U.S. officials say, are faster than the Hueys, 155 knots to 100 knots. Blackhawks also carry more troops - 24 in the Blackhawk, 11 in the Huey. The differences, the Army concluded, "clearly indicate that the [Blackhawk] is the helicopter that should be fielded to Colombia in support of the counter-drug effort."
The Colombians have 31 Blackhawks divided among their air force, army and national police. Colombia is purchasing 14 more Blackhawks, mostly to fight Marxist rebels as opposed to the anti-drug efforts financed by the United States.
The Colombian national police have 19 Hueys for anti-drug operations, while the U.S. State Department has lent 18 other Hueys to the Colombian army for the anti-drug campaign as it awaits the new batch of helicopters, whatever they are.
Congressional staff members predict that the outcome of the dispute is likely to be a mix of Hueys and Blackhawks for the Colombian government.
"No one's made any decision on this," said one staffer. "The only thing firm is, it's going to be $1.3 billion" for anti-drug aid.