America's Away Team in the War on Drugs
HSL-60 'Jaguars' Use Nighttime Force Against Drug Runners
Darkness won't stop a bullet.
Drug runners in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are finding out the hard way that U.S. Navy helicopters can not only hunt them at night, but now their U.S. Coast Guard precision marksmen can use force to stop drug boats 24-hours-a-day.
Last year, Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light Six Zero (HSL-60), a Navy Reserve squadron from Naval Station Mayport, Fla., became the first Naval unit authorized for nighttime use of force against drug boats. As they prepare for their next deployments, they expect this powerful new tool will increase their effectiveness in the counter-narcotics mission.
For several years, the Navy helicopters in the U.S. Fourth Fleet area of responsibility (the Caribbean, and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans around Central and South America) have had Coast Guard precision marksmen aboard who are authorized to fire disabling shots at drug boats.
"It's a law enforcement action so there are many legal aspects we have to comply with," said Lt. Cmdr. Cedric Patmon of HSL-60. "That is why it is a Coast Guard member who ultimately fires the shots."
"When we find a suspected drug boat that meets the criteria for interdiction, authority over the helicopter is transferred to the regional Coast Guard commander," Patmon continued. "We hail the boat on the radio advising them to stop for inspection. If they do not respond to radio calls, we have a large sign that we use to visually request their cooperation. If the boat still doesn't stop, our Coast Guard marksman fires warning shots. Finally, the shooter will fire disabling shots at the boat's engine."
The Coast Guard precision marksmen are a small group of less than two dozen law enforcement members who have been selected for the precision marksmanship school. They use the M-107 semi-automatic rifle, firing the same .50 caliber round as the M-2 machine gun, to disable the drug boats.
While the M-107 rifle is accurate at more than 1,000 yards on land, these shots are taken at much closer range. Delivering more than 10,000 foot pounds of muzzle energy, this rifle and cartridge combination can readily pierce the hull of fiberglass, wood or metal drug boats.
"We try to get well inside 200 yards," said one of the Coast Guard shooters. "We don't want to cause any harm to personnel aboard the boats."
The shooters do not fire at anyone aboard the boat, only at the engine.
"After the suspected drug boat has stopped, of its own accord or because of disabling fire, our ship will launch a RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) with a Coast Guard law enforcement team to conduct VBSS (visit board search and seizure)," said Patmon. "Once aboard the suspect vessel, the law enforcement team will seize the drugs and take the smugglers into custody."
This new program has paid off for HSL-60, with several night time busts.
"Last year on deployment, we captured $1 billion in illegal drugs headed for the United States," said Cmdr. Oscar Toledo, HSL-60's executive officer.
It was no simple task, becoming the first Navy unit to have authority for night time use of force.
"We started in 2010, to get ready for the 2012 deployment," said Toledo. "We had to configure our aircraft and put our crews through extensive training before we got Coast Guard approval for this program.
"One of our first challenges was the night vision," Toledo continued. "We needed a heads up display (HUD) inside the goggles. Flying with night vision at 80 to 100 feet over water, while creeping along at less than 30 knots is extremely difficult. Night vision limits peripheral vision and depth perception. Because the HUD displays altitude, attitude, airspeed, and other critical flight parameters, allows our pilots to look where they were flying instead of turning their heads constantly to look at the instrument panel."
This increased safety and provided a steadier platform for the Coast Guard marksmen to shoot from, but it takes practice.
"We did a lot of training for these missions," said Toledo. "One of our biggest challenges as a Reserve squadron is coordinating our training days with the civilian work schedules of our Reserve aircrew members.
"It's pretty exciting for a Reserve squadron like the HSL-60 Jaguars, to lead the way with this new program. We had a lot of lessons learned that the fleet can incorporate as more units begin flying these missions.
Toledo concluded, "All of our guys made the sacrifices of their personal time to fly extra days and to be here when necessary. Our maintainers stepped up and kept our aircraft running under the increased load and did what was necessary to incorporate the new technology into the aircraft in order to meet our mission. I'd say $1 billion in dope off the street is mission accomplished."