Navy copters join Coast Guard in nabbing drug runners
By Otto Kreisher COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Navy
helicopter crews are helping the Coast Guard halt
smugglers who bring in drugs aboard “go-fast” boats.
Two San Diego-based SH-60 Seahawk crews are operating
off the California-Mexico coast to counter a shift of drug
smuggling to the Pacific. Two other crews started flying
the more aggressive counterdrug missions in the
Atlantic-Caribbean area in April.
The missions are a
significant expansion of the counternarcotic support that
Navy helicopters have provided for years.
To comply with laws barring the military from
performing law enforcement duties, the Navy copters carry
a Coast Guard gunner to fire warning and disabling shots
to stop the drug runners' high-speed power boats.
The new Navy support for the Coast Guard anti-drug
efforts is viewed enthusiastically by both services.
“The best way to counter the drug runners once the
narcotics get out on the water is to increase your
operational capabilities on the water,” said Lt. Cmdr.
Rick Hamblet, acting operations officer for the Coast
Guard's Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, or
HITRON, in Jacksonville, Fla. “That's the sole purpose for
expanding the use of force to the U.S. Navy. It puts more
resources in the theater.”
Navy spokesman Lt. Trey Brown agreed, predicting that
“more illegal contraband will be seized before it reaches
the shores of the United States and our partner nations in
the region. And the traffickers will be prosecuted.
“The ability to disable suspect go-fast vessels will
further reduce the viability of transporting drugs in this
way,” he said.
The HITRON operations started as an experiment in 1998,
when the Coast Guard found its ships were stopping less
than 10 percent of the drugs heading toward the United
States by sea because they often could not catch the
go-fasts – sleek power boats capable of speeds twice as
fast as the service's cutters.
In response, Coast Guard crews developed and tested
tactics to use armed helicopters flying from cutters at
sea to intercept suspected drug-running boats. If orders
to stop were ignored, the door gunner would fire warning
shots with a light machine gun and, if necessary, disable
the craft's outboard engines with a precision-fired
.50-caliber rifle. The stopped boat would be boarded by a
Coast Guard team from the cutter.
During the test, the armed copters stopped five
go-fasts, seizing 2,640 pounds of cocaine and 7,000 pounds
of marijuana while arresting 17 smugglers. Based on those
results, the test unit was expanded and designated HITRON
Jacksonville. As of late July, HITRON crews had stopped
104 go-fasts, arrested 376 suspected smugglers and seized
more than 173 tons of drugs that had a street value of
Now, with the HITRON crews being used increasingly for
maritime homeland security missions, the Navy is sharing
the armed interdiction duties, which are an extension of
missions they have been performing for years, said Cmdr.
Larry McGuire, readiness officer for Helicopter
Anti-Submarine Light (HSL) squadrons at Commander Naval
Air Forces Pacific headquarters on North Island Naval Air
In the past, Navy helicopters could find the
drug-running boats, but because of the law enforcement
restrictions, McGuire said, “we could not do anything
except detect and monitor. We couldn't fire a weapon of
That changed when the Coast Guard and Maritime
Transportation Act of 2004 authorized Coast Guard gunners
to fly in Navy helicopters and use weapons to stop the
With that authority, HITRON personnel trained the first
Navy Seahawk crews, working with pilots from Naval Air
Station Mayport, Fla. The Coast Guard-trained pilots then
became instructors for other Navy crews at both Atlantic
and Pacific training units.
Two Navy crews from Mayport deployed April 23 aboard
the guided missile frigate John L. Hall, flying with Coast
Guard enlisted personnel and officers as gunners and
observer-controllers to conduct counter-drugs operations
in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic.
But since the start of the HITRON operations, Coast
Guard data indicate a rapid shift in the go-fast
operations from the Atlantic-Caribbean sector to the
To counter that, HITRON crews deployed to San Diego
when intelligence indicated increased go-fast activity.
Rep. Bob Filner of San Diego, the top Democrat on the
House Transportation Committee's Coast Guard panel, argued
repeatedly for a full-time assignment of HITRON crews to
San Diego, which the Coast Guard said it could not afford.
But now, the Navy is filling that requirement, with two
crews from North Island-based HSL-43 currently deployed on
the frigate Thach for counter-drug duties off the West
Coast, said Cmdr. Andrew Miles, commander of Helicopter
Maritime Strike Weapons School Pacific, which trained
The mission is different from the HSL crews' normal
missions protecting Navy ships, Miles said.
“It's a very dynamic flight environment, at pretty low
altitudes, chasing a go-fast vessel that's maneuvering,”
But everyone is enthusiastic about it, Miles said. “It
gives us an added capability to actually stop these guys;
it's fun training as well,” he said.
“It's all enjoyable and useful flying,” said Lt. Cmdr.
Shane Ahalt, who completed the training in late July in
preparation for leading an HSL-45 detachment deploying on
the San Diego-based frigate Rodney Davis in the fall.
The lower-flying missions are part of a different
regimen than what the crews are used to, Ahalt said.
“The new capabilities are extremely helpful and it will
be very apparent in a short time how effective it is,” he
“I think we're all pretty excited about it,” said Lt.
Sharon Hacker, who will deploy with Ahalt. “It's much more
effective than just letting the go-fast get away.”