The U.S. Coast Guard could spot sea-borne drug runners, they could give chase and they could say harsh words—but they couldn’t stop them. Then came HITRON.
The boat was low to the water and moving fast. Very fast. It’s two powerful engines and sleek hull allowed it to cut a straight line through the water hitting speeds in excess of 70 kt. But now it wasn’t cutting a straight line. It was darting back and forth, turning sharply as it changed directions, trying to evade its pursuer like a doomed gazelle in a desperate but futile effort to escape its fate from a faster and more nimble cheetah.
Just above it, a U.S. Coast Guard MH-68A Stingray helicopter maneuvered effortlessly, keeping the desperately dodging boat just off its port side.
The Stingray pilot had been advised that a British RAF Nimrod had spotted a boat traveling at high speed in international waters. Under pre-arranged protocol, the Nimrod would have radioed a message to the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, reporting the suspicious activities of the boat. In turn, the task force would notify the commander of the nearest U.S. Coast Guard cutter carrying an MH-68A. The Stingray, a militarized version of the AgustaWestland A109, would then be launched to intercept the suspected drug-runner.
After spotting the boat, the Stingray crew confirmed that it was a multi-engine "go-fast" boat typically used by smugglers to supply the drug markets of the United States. It was also confirmed that the boat was "stateless," not flying the flag of any country, and was outside the shipping lanes. There was a high probability that this was, in fact, a drug-runner. It fit the profile. The pilot then pulled away from the fast-moving boat, waiting for clearance to stop it dead in the water.
Under the protocol, once the boat was identified as a suspected drug-runner, tactical control of the mission passed from the task force to the governing Coast Guard district commander. When the crew received a "Statement of No Objection," they were cleared to use force to stop the boat and hold it in position until the cutter could arrive with a boarding party to check its nationality and legitimacy.
With the helicopter’s sirens blaring and blue lights flashing, the crewman in back of the Stingray used hand signals to order the boat to stop. At that point the boat began its evasive maneuvers, trying to cut back and under the helicopter to escape. The pilot easily adjusted and moved the helicopter back into position. He flipped a switch and a loud speaker blared down a message in both English and Spanish for the boat to stop. Instead the boat again cut under the helicopter and reversed direction, heading straight toward the nearest shore and safety.
Again the helicopter turned, easily retaking its position roughly 75 ft. abeam of the boat and 50 ft. above the water. At this point, the pilot gave the order, "Clear to fire warning shots." In the back, the crewman took up his 7.62 mm M-240 machine gun, successor to the U.S. Army’s M-60 machine gun. The pilot’s order cleared him to fire three bursts directly ahead of the speeding boat. Still the boat refused to stop.
Now the order was given for the gunner to prepare to fire disabling rounds into the boat’s engine. Setting aside the machine gun, he detached a five-shot, bolt-action Robar .50-caliber precision rifle from its holding clips and attached it to a stabilizing cord stretched across the open doorway. Placing the laser sight directly on the boat’s engine compartment, he reported, "Ready aft." The pilot responded, "Commence fire." After each individual round, the gunner reported, "Ready aft," and again heard, "Commence fire," until the boat was disabled, its crew waiting helplessly for the Coast Guard cutter to arrive to board their vessel in search of contraband. In the meantime, the helicopter moved off about 650 ft., just out of effective range should the boat’s crew decide to pull out weapons and begin firing, and continued circling the boat to ensure that nothing was thrown overboard pending the arrival of the cutter.
While the boat was a high-speed "go fast" boat, its crew, in fact, were not drug-runners. They were members of the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) Tactical Training Boat section, and the intercept took place on the St. Johns River just below Jacksonville, Fla., home of the Coast Guard’s single HITRON unit. The high-speed intercept was a training scenario designed to prepare HITRON crews for operations in the Caribbean and along the east and west coasts of Central and South America. Needless to say, no actual shots were fired. The weapons were authentic models of the machine gun and rifle, although the laser sight used on the rifle model was the real thing.
The above scenario was one of three runs made during the training mission, with each scenario designed to present the helicopter crew with a different challenge. It also provided Rotor & Wing an excellent opportunity to see the Coast Guard helicopter interdiction team in action.
Like the U.S. Army’s famed 1st Sqdn., 9th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Div., created to become the Army’s first helicopter attack/reconnaissance unit in Vietnam, the HITRON squadron was created to be the Coast Guard’s fast, highly mobile helicopter unit trained to range out ahead of the main elements with the capability to attack and hold the enemy until the main forces can be brought to bear.
“The motivation (behind creation of the unit) is that traffickers were using go-fast, cigarette boats to move their product from the country of source to the intermediate traffickers or the marketplace,” said Capt. Walter J. Reger, commander of HITRON Jacksonville. “Previously, the Coast Guard could follow the traffickers in its aircraft, but could not do anything to get them to stop.” The Coast Guard commandant in the late 1990s, Adm. James Loy, decided he’d had enough of that. Reger said Loy pushed the idea of developing a capability to do something about the drug traffickers. The plan to create a drug-interdiction unit that could go out and stop high-speed boats was designated Operation New Frontier. That became HITRON.
“Now if they won’t stop, we have the capability to disable their means of propulsion,” Reger said. He noted that prior to HITRON’s inauguration, the Coast Guard stopped roughly one of every 10 go-fast boats it spotted. “And that was normally sheer blind luck, such as if the boat broke down,” he said. “But now that we’ve brought in airborne use of force, we have a success rate of 100 percent. We’ve stopped every go-fast boat that we’ve seen. Working with other nations and making bilateral agreements with those countries, we are able to enter their territorial seas to get the boats there as well.”
Operation New Frontier began its “proof of concept” operations in 2000 under Cmdr. Mark Torres and was called HITRON 10, the number representing the six pilots and four aviation gunners originally assigned. During the proof of concept, the command was upgraded and Capt. Robert McLaughlin took charge. HITRON was officially commissioned in Jacksonville in May 2003, with Reger taking command. In the four years since the proof of concept started, the unit has intercepted more than 54 boats, arrested more than 168 traffickers and confiscated more than 57 tons of cocaine, eight tons of marijuana and 36 lb. of heroin, which collectively have an estimated value of $4.06 billion. While the amount of heroin doesn’t sound like much, its estimated import value is $190,000 a pound. Cocaine is valued at $32,000 a pound.
To start the program, the Coast Guard acquired eight A109 Power helicopters from AgustaWestland under a year-to-year lease agreement extending to 2008. The leases are renewable each January.
“The idea is that this is an interim solution until the Coast Guard decides how the aviation fleet is going to look,” Reger said. “At some point, these aircraft could be replaced by different aircraft, depending on what the Coast Guard decides.” HITRON is one system within the Coast Guard “system of systems” that will make up the Deepwater program, Reger said.
Although the Coast Guard already operates the Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphin and Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawk, the A109/MH-68A was chosen for its engine power and almost acrobatic agility. The aircraft carries 187 lb. of mission-specific equipment, along with two pilots and one or two gunners, depending on the mission.
Following the development of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard’s reassignment from the Treasury Dept., HITRON Jacksonville was also tasked with the role of homeland security. A drug-interdiction mission calls for a single gunner, while a homeland security mission uses two.
“We have to be able to maneuver very aggressively,” Reger said. “So we need something that is controllable and sufficiently powered in all regimes of flight. The way the Dolphin is currently configured, it is not capable of doing that. The A109 is a very capable aircraft for the dual mission focus of drug interdiction and homeland security—but it is not necessarily the final choice.”
Out of the eight aircraft in the unit, roughly half will be “out in the field,” while the rest will be back at Jacksonville for maintenance and training. The unit is allocated 1,000–1,100 helicopter deployment days per year. HITRON currently has 31 pilots and 24 aviation gunners. The pilots must have at least 1,000 hr. rotary-wing time to be assigned to HITRON, according to Lt. j.g. Peyton Russell, an MH-68A pilot and the unit’s intelligence officer, “Previous aircraft commander time is also a must, so that minimal time is required to gear up to our standards.”
The helicopters are equipped with satellite communications, UHF/VHF/ FM radios, head-up displays (HUDs) with ITT aviation night vision imaging system (ANVIS) 7s, FLIR Systems Ultra 7000 forward-looking infrared systems and Spectrolab Inc. SX-5 IR searchlights. The pilots are equipped with ITT ANVIS 9 Filmless Tube night-vision goggles.
The crew uses an automatically controlled Sony Handicam digital video camera to document the entire operation for use when the case goes to trial. Other onboard equipment includes dual GPS with a moving map display, Garmin GNS 430 TCAS, Honeywell color weather radar, Rockwell Collins multi-function display with radar sweep and a flight director that is not a full autopilot “but will hold heading and altitude,” Russell said. The gunner has an 8-in., hand-operated flir display screen with high-resolution zoom for spotting and identifying targets. The aircraft are also equipped with TACAN, which allows them to locate Naval vessels that they can use to “leapfrog” to their objectives—landing on the Navy ships to refuel en route to and returning from the target vessels.
Russell said that the HITRON units locate about 40 percent of the go-fast boats by themselves, with the remainder found by maritime patrol assets such as the U.S. Navy’s P-3 aircraft or RAF Nimrods. The HITRON unit works through the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, which is composed primarily of representatives from the departments of Defense, Transportation and Treasury. Other involved agencies include the FBI and the Drug Enforcement, National Security and Defense Intelligence agencies and Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Ships, aircraft and liaison officers are also provided by the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, which increases the “eyes and ears” for the HITRON unit. Various Latin American countries also have liaison officers, primarily Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. According to a task force report, these elements create a joint operations command center “where intelligence and operations functions are fused in a state-of-the-art command, control, communications, computers and intelligence facility.” It is this command center that coordinates the deployment of the HITRON element to intercept the drug-runners and clears the political and bureaucratic hurdles to allow the use of force to stop the high-speed boats.
While the use of a 7.62 mm. machine gun and .50-caliber, five-round clip, bolt-action, laser-scope rifle could be considered fairly deadly operations, it is not, in fact, described as deadly force. The .50-caliber rifle is used strictly as a precision weapon to disable high-speed boats, not kill their occupants. This subtle differentiation of “non-lethal force” versus “deadly force” was necessary to obtain U.S. Justice Dept. of approval for the program. It was only after obtaining clearance from Justice in late 1998 that the Coast Guard could approach the rest of the interagency task force for concurrence of the concept.
However, in the event of an armed threat, the aircraft commander is fully authorized to use suppressing fire to protect the aircraft and its crew.
Live-fire training for door gunners consists of flying alongside a target the size of a 65-hp. Evenrude engine moving along a set of tracks. The gunners fire from about 250 ft. away and must be able to get an 80-percent accuracy score to qualify. They also train in the use of NVGs with an illuminator—a laser dot the gunner can place on the target, but that the bad guys can’t see, Russell said.
Seeding the Coast Guard
Once a suspected boat is stopped, the Coast Guard is authorized to board it under the international “Right of Visit” boarding law that allows law enforcement entities to board any vessel in international waters that is suspected of illegal activities, to include drug-running—or even the ancient yet still modern crimes of piracy and slave trading.
Although Operation New Frontier has proven its worth in the battle against the illicit drug trade, the direction the program will take is as yet undecided. The Coast Guard is still studying the concept of the airborne use of force both as part of Deepwater and a project called Helicopters in Maritime Homeland Security Working Group. But whatever direction it takes, and whichever type aircraft is ultimately decided on, it will involve HITRON as a high-speed, rapid reaction attack/reconnaissance helicopter unit, Reger said.
“This is the Coast Guard’s first experimental unit with airborne use of force,” he said. “We’re not sure what the outcome will be (once Deepwater is fully developed), but airborne use of force is here to stay and will be seeded through the rest of Coast Guard aviation—at least throughout the rotary-wing community.”