2006 – Coast Guard Assumes National Capital Rotary Wing Air Intercept Mission
Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft intercepted by HH-65C during Rotary Wing Air Intercept training exercise
The U.S. Coast Guard officially assumed responsibility for rotary wing air intercept operations in the nation’s Capitol Air Defense Zone from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency on 25 September 2006. Coast Guard HH-65C helicopters and crews operate out of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), located in Arlington County, Virginia, just 4 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. The National Capital Air Defense Facility is managed by Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City and is under the operational control of the North American Aerospace Command (NORAD). Aircrews from Atlantic City and supporting Coast Guard air stations stand ready to be launched to intercept any aircraft that is deemed to be a possible threat.
NORAD is a bi-national United States and Canadian organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America. Aerospace warning includes the monitoring of man-made objects in space, and detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles. The defense against an attack is ground to air missiles and fighter aircraft. Aircraft defense was provided primarily by the Air National Guard.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 brought a whole new set of potential threats ranging from airliners to small civilian aircraft into the equation. With this threat, unlike tracking an incoming missile or military aircraft, the matter of intent became paramount. It would be a horrible mistake to shoot down an airliner with a full load of passengers or a small aircraft because of communications failure or navigation error. It was apparent that a non-lethal means to identify and stop a threatening aircraft had to be developed.
NORAD began working closely with civilian agencies. An intelligence feed from FBI and CIA and other agencies was set up. A close relationship with the FAA was developed and an integration of NORAD’s radar and communications networks with the FAA system allowed almost instant alert to NORAD and NORTHCOM if an air traffic controller noticed unexpected activity by an airplane. Further, with the creation of US Northern Command, NORAD was incorporated into a comprehensive defense of the nation on the ground and in coastal waters, as well as in the air.
The Coast Guard’s involvement in Rotary Wing Intercept (RWAI) was in response to a request from the Secret Service for enforcement of restricted airspaces around National Special Security Events. The Aviation Training Center Mobile studied the operational procedures employed by the Department of Defense and developed similar procedures for the Coast Guard and a training program was set up. The training consists of learning techniques used to intercept targets of interest including night intercepts using night vision goggles and classes on intercept terminology and mission. Coast Guard Auxiliary pilots volunteer their time and aircraft for intercept drills in order to improve response time and give the pilots a moving target on which to hone their flight interception skills.
Air Station Savannah was the first unit to operationally employ RWAI capability when it provided protection for the G8 Summit in June of 2004. Additional crews from CGAS Atlantic City, CGAS Miami, were trained and were followed by crews from other air stations to provide coverage within desired operational areas. Coverage was provided for the Democratic and Republican conventions, the funeral for former President Ronald Reagan and additional special events level one through five as well as the NASA space shuttle launches.
Airspace security around Washington D.C. came into sharp focus on May 11, 2005 when a small privately owned airplane wandered into the restricted airspace encompassing Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The single engine aircraft came within three miles of the White House and was within seconds of being shot down by Air Force fighter aircraft before it shifted course. The air security protocol was reevaluated and the Department of Defense (DOD) specified duties it required of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In a memo, DOD said they had sufficient firepower; however, what was needed was a strong law enforcement presence.
The Customs and Border Security Agency, an agency within DHS, had been providing RWIA for the capitol area. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, upon review of the RWAI mission requirements as determined by the DOD, decided that based on the Coast Guard’s command and control systems and its relationship to the DOD it would be given full responsibility and control of the air security role. This decision was made at the beginning of November but implementation was delayed because of the extensive commitment of aviation resources during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
HH-65C RWAI helicopters on standby- alert status
It was decided to use the upgraded HH65C as the intercept aircraft. Seven additional HH-65Cs were added to the fleet. Captain James Hubbard, Commanding Officer of CGAS Atlantic City, who had shepherded the operational employment of RWAI for National Special Security Events, was called upon to develop the operation plan, a comprehensive maintenance support doctrine, and an extensive logistic frame work to support a forward deployed air facility. Ably assisted by those under his command the unit was operational within a short period of time and transfer of the Capital Region Air Intercept Mission took place on September 25, 2006.
The Coast Guard RWAI mission is to visually identify low, slow-moving targets that have entered into restricted airspace. Intercept is initiated by a call from the NORAD operations center and the ready helicopter is airborne and enroute for the target within only a few minutes. The crew then performs special maneuvers to approach and intercept the target aircraft and then positions themselves on the aircraft’s left side in order to be fully visible to the pilot flying the aircraft. The target aircraft is visually identified and the helicopter crew passes information about the aircraft to NORAD and FAA personnel on the ground to determine if the aircraft is a threat or just an errant general aviation pilot.
The Coast Guard air crew attempts to communicate with the target aircraft on internationally recognized emergency frequencies and/or carefully moves in closer to visually communicate via light board signs and international intercept signaling. Once communications are established, the aircraft is led out of the restricted area and escorted to a nearby airfield. Non- compliance will lead to the use of force. There were 23 successful intercepts made during the latter part of 2006 and 70 during 2007.