San Diego Union Tribune

September 22, 2006

Navy helicopters help catch speedy drug smuggling boats

Joint patrols target 'go-fast' vessels

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.

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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 powerboats.

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 powerboats 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 $8.6 billion.

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 squadrons at Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific headquarters on North Island Naval Air Station.

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 any kind.”

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 go-fasts.

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 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 counterdrugs 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 Eastern Pacific.

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 deployed on the frigate Thach for counterdrug duties off the West Coast, said Cmdr. Andrew Miles, commander of Helicopter Maritime Strike Weapons School Pacific, which trained them. 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,” he said.

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 from what 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 said.

“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.”

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