A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

1987 – Coast Guard Aviation Established an Air Interdiction Role in the Drug War

Coast Guard E2C AWAC

The Bahama Islands became a primary trans-shipment point for both marijuana and cocaine. It was here that Carlos Lehder in conjunction with the Medellin Cartel revolutionized the cocaine trade In the early years of the 1980s cocaine had not been on the DEA “radar”. Previously drug dealers relied on human “mules” to smuggle drugs on regular commercial flights. Utilizing Norman Cay, an island in the Bahamas, owned by Carlos, as a trans-shipment facility, much greater quantities of cocaine was transported with far less risk. Cocaine was flown to the Bahamas and then transferred to small personal type aircraft which were used to transport it to pre-arranged locations in the United States. Norman Cay was closed but many remote trans-shipment landing sites remained. In addition the smugglers began dropping shipments at pre-arranged drop points to be recovered by high speed boats referred to as “Go-Fasts”. If packaged properly “coke” will float. The primary means used by the Medellin Cartel to transport cocaine to the drop points was light twin engine aircraft.

By 1986 the Cocaine threat had become highly publicized. Congress was not pleased with the existing effort and began developing its own strategy. Critics wanted increased air interdiction activities and faulted the El Paso Intelligence Center for not providing timely tactical information to interdiction agencies. Congress proposed all source Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence Centers (C3I) with provisions to enhance the capabilities of the interdiction agencies. Admiral Paul Yost had just become Commandant and he believed strongly that the Coast Guard should be assigned the expanded air interdiction responsibilities because it had a secure command and control system and a complete infrastructure to train personnel and support its equipment whereas the Customs Service did not.

Even though the Coast Guard was charged under Title 14 for the enforcement of laws on and over the high seas, naked expediency and somewhat naive probity created a void. The Commissioner of Customs, William Von Raab, astutely exploited this and by means of legitimate activism built a fleet of small boats and an air force. To this end Customs had four P-3A aircraft with air search radar, a small fleet of interceptor/tracker aircraft, and some Blackhawk helicopters on loan from the Army. The Navy had previously offered the Coast Guard 5 P3 aircraft for interdiction purposes. They were old and would have had to be upgraded. ADM Yost who was Chief of Staff to the Commandant, ADM Gracey, strongly recommended that Coast Guard take them. The Commandant declined because he did not have money in the budget to upgrade, and support the aircraft. Customs took them, went to Congress and got the money to upgrade, installed proper radar, obtained and trained pilots, obtained support and put four in service. ADM Yost stated in his oral history that as Commandant he would not let this happen again.

A Commandant’s Air Interdiction Study Group composed of COMDT G-O, G-ole, G-OAI, G-OAV, G-EAE, CAA (AO), CCGD7 (oil) and G-L convened in July of 1986 and produced a finished Coast Guard Air Interdiction Plan. Armed with this information the Commandant briefed and convinced the Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole, that the Coast Guard already had the necessary infrastructure and trained personnel to accomplish the mission and was the logical choice for the expanded air interdiction effort. Realizing that he would face strong opposition he arranged to personally brief President Reagan at the White House. With Secretary Dole, Secretary of the Treasury Jim Baker, Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and Ed Meese present he made his presentation. The result was that the Coast Guard became involved in the air-interdiction mission.

The Anti Drug Abuse Act was passed and signed by the President on October 27, 1986. It was an omnibus drug bill providing funds for education, treatment, and interdiction. In addition to establishing mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses funds were provided for Department of Defense interdiction assistance, Customs enforcement, Coast Guard drug interdiction enhancement, the United States Bahamas Drug Interdiction Task Force, and three Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence Centers (C3I).

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was the basis for the initial formal participation of the Coast Guard in the air interdiction mission. Up to that time Coast Guard aviation’s role in drug interdiction was solely in support of the maritime forces. Helicopters were carried onboard cutters to enhance surveillance capabilities and contributed effectively to the operation. Long range fixed wing aircraft flew patrols in areas of transit identifying smuggling vessels by means of profile and intelligence information. The position of the drug traffickers was relayed to the surface vessel which moved in and accomplished the intercept.

Congress determined that eight Navy E-2C AWAC aircraft should be dedicated to the air interdiction mission. The Navy was to operate four and initially the Coast Guard was to operate four. This was later amended to four for the Navy, two for the Coast Guard and two for Customs. The C3I East facility was jointly operated by the Coast Guard and Customs Service. In addition, congress funded APG-66 intercept radar capable of multi-tracking and high resolution FLIR for nine Coast Guard HU-25 aircraft to be used as interceptors and trackers. Funds to add long range surveillance radar to the C-130 inventory was also provided. In addition HH-3F helicopters with FLIR were assigned to OPBAT operations. Within three years, based on operational performance criteria, the Coast Guard was assigned and operated eight E2Cs.

Coast Guard Air Facility Norfolk CGAW1

Contained in the Drug Abuse Act was a provision for an air facility to support the Grumman E2C aircraft. The Coast Guard was to form an air interdiction unit operating Navy E2C aircraft. The Navy was to provide the aircraft and provide support facilities to operate the aircraft. Naval Air Station Norfolk was the designated naval support facility for E2C aircraft and became the initial site of CGAW1. The Coast Guard met with the Navy and the Grumman Corporation to discuss the implementation of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). During the discussion it became evident that NAS Norfolk had no hangar space, no buildings, no excess furniture, and no phones available for Coast Guard use. There was a vacant area next to the VAW squadron seawall which was utilized. The MOA was signed off on 2 January 1987 and orders were issued for a pre–commissioning detachment to report to Norfolk and begin forming the unit.

Temporary office spaces were obtained and hundreds of details had to be taken care of. Everything from service records to procurement of basic office supplies had to be looked after. The Coast Guard had never flown the E2C so aircrew qualification was required and Grumman assisted in maintenance training. The Hawkeye was equipped with an electronically advanced radar package which additionally required specialized maintenance and operational training. Intense on the job training was commenced. Flight Officers, necessary to interpret radar data and coordinating intercept targets, were obtained from the Navy and direct commissioned in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard did not have Flight Officers and did not have the time to train them. This would be modified later on. The unit was formally commissioned on January 22 under the command of CDR. Norman Scurria.

Amazingly the first operational mission was flown on 9 February and on the 10th the unit got its first bust forcing down a twin engine aircraft full of cocaine. This is a testament to the skill level of the crewmembers and the pre-planning, asset allocation and operational procedures established by CCGD7 during the previous three months. Further amplification of pre-planning and operational procedures is included under the C3I heading in this narrative.

The E-2C was an ideal platform to initially acquire targets; closely control intercept aircraft, data link a “real time” picture to an operations center, and provide command/control services for other aircraft. The E-2C long range, 360 degree AN/APS-125 search radar was capable of detecting small targets at great range. The one disadvantage was that designed for Navy Aircraft Carrier operation it was” short legged.” The Coast Guard solved this problem by deploying the aircraft to various locations within the drug transit zone.

.Initially intercept missions were assigned by the South Florida Interdiction Center. This was a joint operation of CCGD7 and the United States Customs Service (USCS). CCGD7 also assigned many planned and dedicated Air Interdiction missions based on intelligence inputs and using resources from multiple agencies in pulse type operations. When C3I became operational the E2Cs, COMLANTAREA assets, “Chopped” to C3I for mission assignment and control.

C3I East

In the mid 1980s drug interdiction forces went on the offensive. A series of multi-agency sea-air operations to block drugs from Caribbean sources began. These would evolve into an ongoing concept. The Coast Guard was the lead agency for marine interdiction. The value of aviation resources to Coast Guard counter-narcotic interdiction efforts had been demonstrated repeatedly. Recognizing the need for direct aviation input on the planning of large Caribbean drug operations CAPT John Hearn, CCGD7 Operations/Law Enforcement, requested an Aviator billet for his staff. LT Dan Slyker, a helicopter Aircraft Commander and a former Chief Gunners Mate with extensive law enforcement experience, was assigned. By the fall of 1985 these operations included rudimentary air interdiction procedures – mainly instructions for aircrews and search radar capable vessels when observing aircraft that fit the profile and/or engaged in airdrops of contraband. The procedures were expanded and became more detailed OPORDS for on-going drug interdiction operations that followed.
The National Narcotics Border Interdiction System (NNBIS) was established in 1983 to provide interagency counternarcotics intelligence coordination and drug interdiction planning. The NNBIS was divided up into regions. The South Florida Task Force (SFTF) was the regional center covering the lower Atlantic coast from Florida to North Carolina and most of the Florida Gulf Coast. The SFTF had an Operations Information Center (OIC) and an Intelligence Information Center (IIC). The regional center evaluated and collated intelligence from participating agencies. They identified targets and determined those with seizure potential. The target vessel or aircraft was tracked in OIC and the OIC watch officer located an interdiction resource in the targets path. It was the agency that owned the interdiction resource that made the decision to intercept, board, search, seize and arrest.

Upon enactment of the Anti Drug Abuse Act the Commandant wanted immediate Coast Guard involvement. Lt. Slyker, CCGD7 Air Operations/Air Interdiction Officer, was a participant in Commandant Yost’s Air Interdiction Study Group and was tasked with the implementation of Coast Guard Air Interdiction operations. Operational areas were chosen based on intelligence from SE NNBIS, JFTF, and OPBAT. Air intercept procedures were developed. Coast Guard aviators could make a hoist in extremely adverse situations or drop a pump on a dime, but they had no experience in covertly approaching and identifying a possible drug smuggling aircraft. Rules of engagement, communication plans, and operational procedures were developed and implemented. Air intercept operations began in mid December utilizing available assets. The E2Cs began flying in February.

Upon initial entry of the Coast Guard into air interdiction, the Customs Service (USCS) and the Coast Guard (USCG) jointly manned a South Florida Air Interdiction Center (AIC) in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Miami Control Center. Air intercept controllers were provided by the Customs Service and the FAA. The increased air-interdiction operations placed a significant additional burden on the FAA controllers and as a result the Coast Guard decided to utilize personnel with a Radarman rating and train them as dedicated air intercept controllers. The job title of Detection Systems Specialists (DSS) was chosen to match that used by Customs to eliminate confusion in a joint operation.

C3I East was dedicated on 27 April 1987. It was a highly sophisticated facility capable of receiving input from a number of radar and intelligence sources – sort and evaluate the information – dispatch assets and coordinate intercept operations by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Commissioner of Customs William von Raab and Commandant of the Coast Guard, ADM Paul A. Yost, both spoke at the dedication extolling the capabilities of C3I East. President Bush did the same and emphasized that the facility provided the best example of how agencies would work together to wage war on drugs. This would not be the case. Customs saw the entry of the Coast Guard into air-interdiction and Miami C3I facility as an erosion of their authority and mission responsibilities and reacted accordingly.

CAPT Jim Leskinovitch, the Coast Guard Officer in Charge, with the assistance of LT. Dave Masiero headed up the pre-commissioning detail. Pre-planning requirements were determined and procedures were detailed. Operational inputs were obtained from Coast Guard sources as well as other agencies. Manning requirements were established. Watch Officers and 38 Radarmen had to be trained for air interdiction operations. Lt Slyker was assigned as the Tactical Air Missions Planning Officer in June. Lt Masiero was the Senior Command Duty Officer and was responsible for training. A dual operation took place at C3I and the Air Interdiction Center at the Miami ARTC for several months to facilitate a smooth transition.

Realizing that intensive training would be required to fully qualify the Coast Guard watch-standers in a field they had never been exposed to before, CAPT Leskinovitch obtained assistance from U.S. Air Force Training Specialists and Subject Matter Experts. Air intercept training was provided at Tyndall AFB where the Air Force had a training facility set up that duplicated “real-time” intercept information at the Southeast Sector Operations Center (NORAD). This was combined with weather, FAA operation procedures and terminology. A quality training program was established. Customs was invited to participate but Mr. Denmat, the Customs Officer-in-Charge at the local level, declined the invitation. They were later directed by Customs Headquarters to participate. The result was high caliber well trained operators.

C3I used an automated system with a computerized display. The system accepted feed from the FAA, tethered Aerostat balloons, all Customs and Coast Guard aircraft and vessels, inputs from JTF4.* This information was sent to all work stations giving each watchstander updated information. A radar contact could be traced from the beginning to the end of its trip. In addition to the radar contact the watchstander had the location of all law enforcement vessels and aircraft in the area and the projected destination. The instant access provided was invaluable in interdiction efforts.

A hypothetical scenario is as follows. —– A Coast Guard E2C airborne detection aircraft on patrol picks up a radar blip on the monitor. It is a small aircraft, more than 150 miles away, headed north from Colombia, flying close to the water. The contact is fed into the system and a computer data base shows that there has been no flight plan filed. While the E2C continues its radar patrol, a Coast Guard or Customs jet is dispatched to intercept. Intercept is made. The jet matches speed and moves to within 15 yards to obtain aircraft identification number. It is phony. The jet continues surveillance or, depending on the point of intercept, a propeller driven aircraft designed for long flights takes over the intercept and trails the suspected aircraft. This can continue for an extended period of time with the pilot of the suspected drug running aircraft either unaware that he is being followed or trying to figure out how to lose the pursuer. Finally the drug-runner makes a move toward a remote airstrip in central Florida. An alerted Customs or Coast Guard helicopter, with night vision capabilities, is dispatched with armed lawmen on board. When the suspected drug-runner touches down the helicopter is behind it. The Federal agents jump from the helicopter and rush the plane. If the “hunch” is right, a drug bust has been made.

* The FY 1989 National Defense Authorization Act designated the Department of Defense as the lead agency for the detection and monitoring program targeted against the aerial and maritime traffic attempting to bring drugs into the United States. Three task forces were established to direct the anti-drug surveillance efforts. JTF4 was located in Key West Florida. They coordinated through the controlling agency and were very effective.

In the beginning the Coast Guard E2C deployment system worked well. The aircraft deployed from Norfolk to various staging areas in the Caribbean. The aircraft were deployed for eight to 10 days. However, the Coast Guard was now dealing with Cartels that had good intelligence capabilities. They knew there was only two Coast Guard E2Cs, when the aircraft arrived at the deployment location and how long it would be there. The Cartel would fly around the deployment location and when necessary, stop operation for the period the E2C would be present. The problem was not the system but rather there was not enough aircraft to provide the ‘on station time” to make it work. .The answer was additional E2Cs for the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Air Station St. Augustine

CAPT Tom Johnson assumed command of CGAW1 in July of 1989. He had earlier initiated increased Coast Guard aviation activities in the Operation Bahamas, Turks, and Caicos (OPBAT) and had been directly involved in initial Coast Guard acquisition of the E-2Cs. Two additional E2Cs had been acquired and shortly after his arrival Air Facility Norfolk (CGAW-1) was disestablished and relocated to St. Augustine, Florida. Again working out of trailers, the high tempo air interdiction operations continued. Construction of a new hangar complex, a state-of-the-art 78,000 square foot facility, was completed in November. Coast Guard Air Station St. Augustine was formally commissioned on 26 January 1990.

By the end of 1989 the Coast Guard had acquired eight E2C aircraft. With Tactical control of assets exercised at the C3I center the Coast Guard operation became the model for joint interagency cooperation. As the Joint Task Force 4 (JTF4) came on line in 1989, the E-2Cs became an integral part of their Airborne Early Warning (AEW) operations.

In 1987, LTJG Norm Schweitzer reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida as one of the first two Coast Guard officers selected for the Coast Guard Flight Officer program in support of the newly acquired E-2C Hawkeye aircraft. Previous to this all Flight Officers were direct commissioned out of the Navy or Naval Air Reserve, He went on to earn aviator wings and was the Commanding Officer of the Houston Air Station during the Hurricane Katrina response in 2005. ADM Yost had promised all direct commissioned Flight Officers a career in the Coast Guard. This promise was kept. Five Flight Officers were selected to receive pilot transition. The others chose to embark on new and challenging career paths within the Coast Guard.

Air Intercept Aircraft

HU-25 Falcon
HU-25 with air intercept radar

HU-25 with air intercept radarInitial intercepts were made using HU-25A and HU-25B aircraft while waiting for the modified HU-25C to come on line. This was difficult and required intercept control from the E-2Cs to be effective. By means of training exercises, utilizing Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft as Targets of Interest (TOI), crewmembers learned to use their weather radars to roughly gauge closure rates. The HU-25C was equipped with an APG-66 radar for air-to-air intercept, improved Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) radar for close-in tracking, and an Electro-Optical day color Electro-Optic device and military satellite communications. The HU-25C had an advanced tactical workstation, with data base, capable of tracking up to 30 surface contacts simultaneously, significantly improved command, control, communications, computers and intelligence capabilities. The APG-66 radar made available to the pilots, on a radar display, the target closure rate, altitude, speed and heading. With the HU-25C operational it became a “whole new ball game.”

The HU-25Cs were also forward staged to many locations throughout the Caribbean including GTMO Borinquen, Nassau, Curacao, Grenada, Panama, Honduras and Belize. They were used effectively. They might fly in support of a Coast Guard E-2C on one day, a USCS P-3 or USAF E-3 the next day, or French, Dutch or British West Indies Guard (WIG) ship, GTMO radar, a USN Aegis-equipped vessel, or Relocatable Over-The-Horizon Radar (ROTHOR) on any other given day of any given deployment.

A HU-25C was maintained at the ready with a qualified Air Intercept crew. If a suitable aircraft and qualified crew was not airborne and available for divert a HU-25C was placed on ready alert. The aircraft was preflighted with all flight gear on board. The Inertial Navigation System (INS) was aligned and then shut down in order to be able to perform a rapid alignment at launch. Intercept procedures were established by which identification of an aircraft by means of aircraft number and general description was made and a trail position established both during daylight and night hours. Proficiency was obtained and maintained by performing intercepts.


The E2C was a single mission aircraft with an air endurance designed for Aircraft Carrier Operation. The Lockheed EC-130V Hercules AEW&C aircraft was first developed for the United States Coast Guard as a proof of concept aircraft in 1991 by the General Dynamics Company. It was designed as a multi-mission aircraft that combined a C-130H airframe (CG1721) with the APS-125 Radar and Mission System of the US Navy E2 Hawkeye. This aircraft was for counter-narcotics missions requiring greater endurance than the E-2 could provide, but was also evaluated for Search and Rescue, Fisheries Patrols, EEZ enforcement and as a support aircraft for NASA Space Shuttle launches. Externally the EC-130 differs from a standard Coast Guard C-130 with the fitting of a large rotodome housing the APS-125 radar. Internally the mission system was palletized and was rolled into the C-130 cargo bay to complete the conversion. The thinking was to take a known radar system and put it into a known, trustworthy airframe with an extended range of operation.
The EC-130V was flown out of Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater during an 11 month operational evaluation of the aircraft. It was utilized in as many mission functions as possible. It proved very effective in coordinating and directing multiple assets and could work more than one case at a time. Due to budget reductions and the existing fund distribution emphasis within the Coast Guard, the EC-130V program was terminated. This aircraft was transferred to the USAF in 1993 as the NC-130H for further development including upgrading to the latest APS-145 Radar. By mid-1999 the Navy had the plane at NAS Patuxent River as a test platform for avionics related to the Navy’s Hawkeye 2000 program.


Whenever narco-smugglers felt that the law enforcement agencies were on to their operation they would make changes in methods and procedures. Based on best intelligence and habit patterns basic air interdiction operations were developed. In the early 1980s the Custom Service significantly curtailed smugglers flying loads of drugs directly into remote/rural fields by putting radar operators into the FAA Miami Control Center to sort low/slow inbound aircraft targets that met the profile of operations. They would deploy enforcement teams on helicopters and track the smuggler to point of landing where an arrest and seizure would occur. These operations took place in the arrival zone which was the Custom Services area of responsibility. The Coast Guard had been given marine interdiction responsibility for the transit zone which extended from the U.S. shore line to the 12 mile limit of the source country. When the Coast Guard became actively involved in air interdiction a good deal of emphasis was placed on the transit and departure zones. With the change in mode of operation the E-2Cs were deployed to six foreign Forward Operating Bases in the Caribbean stretching from Belize to Carioca to Grenada. In addition many CONUS bases were routinely used as staging areas. Deployment locations were based on known methods of operation and intelligence information that was getting better and better. This type operation proved to be most effective. During the last year of operation E-2C aircraft were deployed 293 days out of the year.

The Drug War interdiction efforts were in reality a war of attrition. The object was to make it too costly for the smuggler to continue the operation. The response of the smuggler was to adapt and/or change the methods of operation. Maritime interdiction of marijuana in the Caribbean was an example of this. Because of interdiction efforts the main source of supply no longer came through the Caribbean into South Florida; it came from Mexico and home grown sources in the United States. Air interdiction was more costly and initially less effective because natural “choke points” did not exist. It did have an impact however. Jorge Ochoa, a principal of the Medellin Cartel, was asked during a debrief, after turning himself in, what percentage of cocaine was interdicted. His response was that in the beginning none but by 1990, because of the Coast Guard radar aircraft and tighter controls eliminating possible airstrips, the amount interdicted was about 30%. He went on to say that flights would return to the departure point to avoid interdiction and because of this they started to move cocaine through Central America and direct flights to Mexico. Overland shipments to Mexico through Central America were also used. This evolved into a western Caribbean corridor and a more frequently used eastern Pacific corridor to Central America or southern Mexico for trans-shipment of drugs to the United States.

The Coast Guard initially became involved in drug interdiction in 1974. During the next sixteen years the drug interdiction mission grew to the point where it was 25% of the Coast Guard budget. Admiral J. William Kime became Commandant of the Coast Guard in 1990. He stated he wanted to provide balance among all the operating forces the Coast Guard had; law enforcement, environmental protection, aids to navigation, boating safety and search and rescue. He further stated that the Coast Guard had overemphasized drug interdiction and military readiness to the detriment of other missions. As a result the military mission was de-emphasized and drug interdiction was cut back to 9% of the budget. Coast Guard Air Station St. Augustine, CGAW-1, was disestablished 22 November 1991 and the E2C aircraft were returned to the Navy. Hurricane Andrew destroyed the C3I building in 1992 and C3I never became fully operational again. Beginning in 1993 17 HU-25 aircraft were placed in storage. The procurement of the EC-130V was terminated.
A 1995 DEA paper reported that cocaine traffickers were increasingly using routes employed four to six years previously, resulting in greater use of the eastern Caribbean and the eastern Bahamas as well as increased importation into the eastern United States. This was a direct result of the de-emphasis of Coast Guard operations.

The Early Years

The Growth Years

Coming Of Age

The Modern Era

The Present Era

Oral History