Article Published in the Seapower
“It just goes to show you that we can get the job done if we have the money to do it,” said Coast Guard Food Service Specialist Third Class Victor Rivera as he flipped through a Coast Guard trade magazine.
Rivera was reading an article describing a recent Coast Guard effort, dubbed Operation New Frontier, that dramatically illustrated how effective the service can be in the war on drugs when the scales are balanced. Rivera, currently assigned to the Coast Guard cutter Nunivak in San Juan, Puerto Rico, participated in Operation New Frontier, and he said he’s convinced the Coast Guard could make a huge dent in the drug trade if the entire service was given similar capabilities as those demonstrated during the operation.
New Frontier, one of two Coast Guard “end game initiatives,” was conducted mostly in secret last fall and was the Coast Guard’s first efforts at using armed helicopters designed to stop high-speed smuggling boats – known as “go-fast” boats – laden with narcotics headed for the United States. During the operation, two concepts were tested: the use of armed helicopters and the use of high-speed, over-the-horizon pursuit boats.
Coasties employed the MH-90 Enforcer helicopter armed with M-240 machine guns and .50-caliber Robar sniper rifles during the pursuit of several boats. The MH-90, leased from Boeing, proved to be quite the equalizer. Previously unable to keep up with “go-fast” boats with its aging, larger, slower cutters, Coast Guardsmen found themselves now capable of stopping a smuggling boat dead in its wake.
“These guys were running right past our cutters and were waving as they went by,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Adair, who works in the drug-interdiction division of the Coast Guard Commandant’s Office of Law Enforcement Policy.
But the MH-90 changed that, in some cases with warning shots across the bows of smuggling boats. If that failed, the helo snipers were prepared to fire shots into the outboard motor of the vessels to kill the engine.
In addition to the helicopters, the Coast Guard also tested its own version of the go-fast boat. Called the “Over The Horizon Cutter Boat,” it worked in concert with the armed helicopters.
The experimental boats were “souped-up versions of the standard” Coast Guard rigid-hull inflatable boats, Adair said. The cutter boats differed in that they were equipped with onboard radar and navigational systems – for over-the-horizon operations – and twin inboard/outboard turbocharged diesel engines.
To accomplish the interception of a go-fast boat, Coasties tested a variety of non-lethal technologies, Adair said. These included “sting ball” grenades that produce a loud bang and bright flash and shower their victim with tiny pellets of rubber that cause considerable pain but do not penetrate the skin.
“It’s basically a pain-and-shock appliance,” he said.
Crews also tested OC pepper spray and 40-mm “foam batons” fired from the M203 grenade launcher, Adair said. Reports on the foam baton showed the weapon to be “mighty effective.”
To physically stop the boat, Coast Guardsmen used sturdy “entanglement nets” to foul the propellers of fleeing boats. Known as Single Loop Entanglement Devices, or SLEDs, these nets were tested, but with little effect. Adair attributed that to the fact the nets were deployed from helicopters, a difficult task.
The nets may also be deployed from the cutter boats, but not without a considerable amount of risk to the boat crews.
“You have to cross the front of the go-fast to drop the net in the boat’s path,” Rivera said. “You have to be careful of the other boat.”
According to the services own statistics, the Coast Guard had about a one in 10 chance of stopping a go-fast before Operation New Frontier. During the operation, the Coast Guard scored a perfect six of six in pursuits and apprehensions. Overall, the operation resulted in the seizure of nearly 12,000 pounds of marijuana and more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine. Twenty suspects were arrested.
Other new interdiction tactics in the works include “fast-roping” boarding parties from helicopters onto the decks of suspect vessels.
By all measures, Operation New Frontier succeeded and should give Washington much food for thought vis a vis funding the Coast Guard. In fact, Adair said, the Coast Guard is proceeding with adapting permanently the air and boat concepts of New Frontier.
The Coast Guard is purchasing the Italian-made Agusta A-109 helicopter to enhance its drug-interdiction capability, Adair said. The multi-mission Agusta will most likely be employed for short periods of time aboard cutters for specific missions, at least initially.
Tests will continue with the prototype cutter boat concept to ensure that the final product will be capable of operating in tandem with an armed helicopter at maximum range, about 60 nautical miles, Adair said. Other techniques under consideration include “fast-roping” boarding teams aboard suspect vessels from helicopters, but testing has not begun.
The need for speed
The second end-game initiative also involves a boat, called the “Deployable Pursuit Boat.” Similar to the cutter, the DPB is essentially an offshore racing boat, said Adair, who heads the pursuit-boat program. The 38-foot Fountain racing boats – the Coast Guard is testing four — are outfitted with twin 420-horsepower turbo diesel engines capable of speeds in excess of 50 knots. They are armed with a prototype light machine gun, the M240. With a crew of two, the boats can carry up to four boarding team members.
The DPB program differs from New Frontier in that the pursuit boats do not operate with helicopters, nor are they launched from cutters. Instead, the boats operate with each, in pairs for the time being, and are deployed from two ocean-surveillance ships owned by the Military Sealift Command, the Persistent and the Vindicator.
Previously used in the Caribbean to track drug aircraft with air-search radars, the ships now serve as launch platforms for the pursuit boats in the Transit Zone, a 6-million-square-mile area of ocean that includes the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific.
Manned by civilian crews, the ships take on Coast Guard boat crews and command-and-control elements for the “limited scope” testing, Adair said. That means the pursuit boats, like the armed helicopters and cutter boats, operate only in international waters.
Adair said the pursuit boats give the Coast Guard an over-the-horizon capability to achieve “end game” – the “pursuit, interception and stopping” of go-fast boats, but the use of the boats is still a long way from perfected. In fact, the program is a “stop-gap” measure designed to keep the Coast Guard from breaking a promise to Congress that it would an “end game” capability by fiscal 2000.
Currently two Fountain boats are deployed with Persistent. The other two are expected to deploy in July with Vindicator. The boats with Persistent have yet to succeed in stopping a go-fast, Adair said, but he also stressed the nascent nature of the program.
“We hope to eventually merge the deployable pursuit boat with the cutter boat, then merge that with the armed helicopter and integrate that with a cutter,” he said.
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