1998 – Drug interdiction:Operation FRONTIER LANCE; Operation NEW FRONTIER and Airborne Use of Force

MH 90 3

MH-90

Operation FRONTIER LANCE was a proof of concept operation designed to evaluate the Coast Guard’s ability to stage an interagency operation from foreign soil as well as test various interdiction assets. It also was an effort to adapt to a shift in smuggling routes and disrupt the increased flow of drugs into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These nations emerged as significant trans-shipment countries due to their geographic location and limited law enforcement capacity.

The primary means of cocaine delivery was the “go-fast.” A typical “go-fast” was built of fiberglass, with a deep “>V” offshore racing hull, usually 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 m) long, narrow in beam, and equipped with two or more powerful engines, often with more than 1,000 combined horsepower. The boats could typically travel at speeds over 80 knots in calm waters, over 50 knots in choppy waters, and maintain 25 knots in the average five to seven foot Caribbean seas. They were heavy enough to cut through higher waves, although at a slower pace. Each “go-fast” could carry 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of cocaine. The in transit time from the north coast of Columbia averaged about nine hours. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) officials calculated that “go-fast” boats were used to smuggle 61 percent of the illegal drugs entering the United States in 1997 and 85 percent in 1998.

The effective end game to combat the “go-fast” required increased assets and a coordinated system of capabilities which included new tactics and assets designed to locate, track, intercept, interdict and apprehend the smugglers. There was an increase in HH-65 and C-130 patrol hours; four HU-25 falcons were reactivated and two T-AGOS ocean surveillance ships were leased from the Military Sealift Command.The T-Agos were equipped with 38’ armed Deployable Pursuit Boats (DPB). These ships were previously used in the Caribbean to track drug running aircraft.

As part of FRONTIER LANCE, a mostly secret operation within an operation, named Operation NEW FRONTIER was conducted. Despite intelligence cueing, surface assets could not match the speed of the “go-fasts.” Helicopters on board the larger cutters could keep up with the “go-fasts” and keep them under surveillance until they required refueling but they had no means of forcing them to stop. Any serious attempt to stop the “go-fasts” would require a drastic change in capabilities. The CIA and Columbian Air Force had enjoyed success with armed airborne interdiction of light aircraft flying coca paste from the mountains of Peru and Bolivia to the processing plants in Columbia. Both Columbia and Panama had enjoyed success in interdicting “go-fasts” with armed helicopters.

ridgid hull

Rigid Hull Over The Horizon Boat

Admiral James M. Loy, Commandant of the Coast Guard and U.S. Interdiction Coordinator for counterdrug operations, wished to evaluate the possible use of force by Coast Guard helicopters for interdiction purposes. He had considerable support from the ONDCP, a number of Congressional officials, and after extensive discussion between legal and operational staffs, the Attorney General signed off on the proposal. Within the Coast Guard, however, there were almost as many critics as supporters. There were those that felt that to arm ourselves would place the helicopter crews in danger and undermine our lifesaving and humanitarian image. There had been an erosion of the military culture within the Coast Guard that was accelerated after transfer to the Department of Transportation. Those in favor of airborne use of force recognized that the Coast Guard was charged with a law enforcement mission and that the proposed policy change was an operational necessity. Special training and safety procedures were advocated.

The Commandant directed that a proof of concept operation using armed Coast Guard helicopters to interdict and apprehend “go-fasts” be conducted. Two concepts were tested:

  • The use of armed helicopters;
  • The use of high speed over-the-horizon pursuit boats which worked in concert with the armed helicopters. These boats were “souped-up” versions of the Coast Guard’s standard rigid-hull inflatable boats. The OTH boats differed in that they are equipped with twin inboard/outboard turbocharged diesel engines, onboard radar and navigational systems for over the horizon operations. The OTH’s were capable of 57 knots.   

<p”> This gave rise to the beginnings of a helicopter interdiction force. Commander Mark Torres molded an initial group of ten volunteers into a cohesive and effective team. The group, named HITRON-10, pioneered novel and effective operating tactics and procedures. HITRON was the acronym for Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron and 10 represented the number of crewmembers assigned. The team flew leased MH-90 enforcer helicopters The MH-90, a militarized version of the MD 900 helicopters built by MD Helicopters Incorporated, was an all weather, short range, single rotor, shipboard helicopter. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney 206D turboshaft engine and designed without a tail rotor. It could cruise at 120 knots for 2.5 hours. The 6,500-pound helicopter was equipped with weather radar, an Mk III forward-looking infrared system (with video-recording capability), night-vision devices, an external sling capable of lifting 1,500 pounds, and a rescue hoist capable of lifting 600 pounds. The crew consisted of two pilots and one crewman. The crewman’s principal duties included firing an M240G 7.62mm machine gun (swivel-mounted at the portside cabin door) and/or a hand-held laser-sighted .50-caliber rifle. He also operated hand-held video and photographic equipment. MD Helicopters Incorporated provided logistic support for the Enforcers.

A variety of non-lethal devices and technologies were tested such as “sting ball” grenades which produce a loud explosion and bright flash and showered their victims with tiny pellets of rubber that caused pain but did not penetrate the skin. Also tested was pepper spray and 40mm “foam batons” fired from an M203 Grenade launcher. To physically stop a boat it was planned to use entanglement nets to foul the propellers of the “go-fast” boats but they had little effect. By far, what proved most effective was to use the M240G machine gun to fire warning shots across the bow after which, if the “go-fast” did not stop, the .50 caliber rifle was used to disable the boat’s engines.

>Before Operation NEW FRONTIER, according to the service’s own statistics, the Coast Guard had about a one-in-ten chance of stopping a “go-fast.” During the evaluation operations, the Coast Guard scored a perfect “six of six” in pursuits and apprehensions.

<p”> Admiral Loy credited the Coast Guard’s bold tactics introduced in Operation NEW FRONTIER with intercepting 53 tons of drugs, including a record amount of cocaine. By all measures, the operation was a major success.

In March 2000, the Coast Guard completed its proof-of-concept efforts and started the process of standing up a fully operational HITRON squadron. Soon thereafter, Coast Guard pilots, aircrews, and support personnel began reporting to Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, where the new unit would be headquartered.

As a follow-up to Operation NEW FRONTIER, and to bring HITRON-10 to full operational capability, the Coast Guard formed a strategic alliance with Agusta Aerospace Corporation in April 2000 and in March 2001 announced that it would lease up to eight Agusta A109E “Power” aircraft to serve as follow-on aircraft for the proof-of-concept MH-90.