A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

The Present Era: 1995 – 2018

The Coast Guard, in the two years prior to 1995, responded to two mass migrations at the same time. This was one of the largest peacetime operations ever conducted.  The migration came first from Haiti and then from Cuba. Over 63,000 migrants were rescued and prevented from illegally entering the United States in Operations ABLE MANNER and ABLE VIGIL At its height, Operation ABLE MANNER involved 17 U.S. Coast Guard Cutters, patrolling the coast of Haiti while ABLE VIGIL involved 38 Coast Guard cutters patrolling the Straits of Florida. The aviation resources were stretched to the limit and operations involved deploying aircraft from several Air Stations. The size of this operation and a 12% cut in Coast Guard appropriations resulted in considerable curtailment of the drug interdiction operations.

During the period 1995 through 1997, the Coast Guard conducted Operation ABLE RESPONSE, with enhanced procedures, dedicated to interdicting Dominican migrants. Aerial surveillance played a large part in this operation. Over 9,500 migrants were interdicted or forced to turn back. Migrant interdiction became ongoing. There was an increase in Cuban interdictions in 1998. There was an increase in flow driven by aggressive professional smuggling.  Through most of the 1990s, The People’s Republic of China was the greatest source of human trafficking by sea and intelligence sources estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 illegal Chinese aliens entered the Western Hemisphere each year; most ultimately destined for the United States. In 1999 and 2000, Coast Guard cutters on Counter-drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific encountered increasing numbers of migrants being smuggled from Ecuador to points in Central America and Mexico. With the transfer of the Coast Guard to the Department of Homeland Security, after the attack on 9/11, the dimension of security was added to migrant interdiction operations.

The Coast Guard’s strategic concept for drug interdiction is to deny smugglers access to maritime routes through a sequence of operations that concentrate interdiction forces in high threat areas. This concept is on going and is designated Campaign STEEL WEB. The concentrated operations are referred to as pulse operations. During 1997 pulse operations FRONTIER SHIELD, GULF SHIELD and BORDER SHIELD were conducted. The overall strategy was a combination of enhanced surface and airborne radar, infrared surveillance, covert tracking and OPBAT-like apprehension efforts using rapid response aircraft, boats and task forces.

Intelligence sources estimated that the annual drug flow through the transit zone during this period was in excess of five hundred metric tons of Cocaine and 160 metric tons of marijuana a year.  Non-commercial maritime conveyances accounted for more than 80 percent of the transit zone flow. The largest challenge during the late 1990s was the elusive, high speed smuggling boats called “go-fasts.” The number of go-fasts increased over one thousand percent during this period. Such craft are small, very fast, nearly invisible to radar, and difficult to see in daylight. In the vast majority of cases, the interdiction assets lacked the speed required to intercept and board suspect vessels. The estimated success rate for go-fast deliveries was close to 90 percent. Initially the few successful go-fast interdictions were the result of mechanical failure on the part of the suspect vessel or intervention by other nations with a more liberal use of force policy. The Coast Guard acquired new equipment and developed capabilities such as the use of armed helicopters and over the horizon cutter boats to address the go fast threat. This made an impact. The resultant performance target was raised from 8.7 percent to 18.7 percent.

During 1998 the pulse operation FRONTIER LANCE took place utilizing C-130s, shipboard HH-65 helicopters and rigid inflatables. In addition, for the first time, MH-90 armed helicopters took part. This proved very successful and led to the establishment of the Helicopter Interdiction Squadron (HITRON) equipped with MH-68A Stingray armed helicopters. Real interagency cooperation began to develop. Emphasis was placed on both source countries and transit zone interdiction. Intelligence was vastly improved and provided to operational units. The Caribbean operations proved to be very effective and by 2002 approximately 70 percent of cocaine destined for the United States was transported through the Mexico-Central America corridor, primarily via the Eastern Pacific and Western Caribbean maritime routes and then overland through Mexico. A combination of air and surface units plus excellent intelligence is making inroads on drug operations.

In 1995 the Deepwater Mission Analysis Report was completed. Deepwater was defined as that area beyond the normal operating range of small shore-based boats. It addressed the rapid aging and technical obsolescence of the current surface and air assets. Air assets were primarily of four types. The American Eurocopter HH-65A Dauphin was the short-range recovery aircraft. The medium range recovery aircraft was the Sikorsky HH-60J Jayhawk. Dassault’s HU-25 A/B/C Guardian was used for medium range surveillance and Lockheed HC-130H Hercules filled the role of long range surveillance aircraft. Additionally the Coast Guard Aviation Auxiliary (a civilian volunteer assistance group) operated various aircraft to assist with Coast Guard missions.

The Mission analysis lead to the integrated Deepwater System (IDS) which was an acquisition program designed to recapitalize the U.S. Coast Guard’s aging Deepwater assets by modernizing or replacing them with a state-of-the-market, interoperable system of cutters and aircraft, including their supporting command, control, communications, intelligence and logistics infrastructure. In the past the Coast Guard replaced its ships and aircraft as they became obsolete or insupportable, normally on a class-by-class basis. The Deepwater program broke from this pattern. For Deepwater, industry was provided with specifications for the capabilities the U.S. Coast Guard needs in order to perform its deepwater missions rather than specifications for specific assets.  The first phase of the Deepwater Program was completed in 2001 and contracts were awarded to Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin as a joint venture known as Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS).

ICGS had broad authority to select and manage contractors and to shape the acquisition plan to best meet the Coast Guard mission requirements. The program initially had wide political support and was seen as a model for managing a technical and complex acquisition program.  However, by late 2006 problems with the program had grown. Major components were failing or stalled. Eight 123-foot patrol boats, an upgraded version of the existing 110- foot patrol boats, were found to have severe structural problems and were removed from the fleet. In addition the newly launched National Security Cutter had secure communications flaws. As a result the Coast Guard restructured the agreement and assumed the role of systems integrator for all Deepwater assets and took full responsibility for leading the management of all life cycle logistic functions.

Within the program, but generated by existing mission requirements, the upgrading of the surveillance, communications, and control capabilities of existing aircraft was done well.  The twin engined turboprop EADS Casa HC-144 was planned to replace the HU-25. The first of a planned 36 came on board in early 2007. This number was reduced to 18 when 14 C-27Js became available on a “No-cost” transfer from the DOD.  The number of HC-130H search-and-surveillance aircraft is presently being reduced, but 16 of the remaining aircraft are being upgraded. This group is supplemented by six C-130J aircraft obtained by supplemental funding.  A Service Life Extension Plan (SLEP) for the HH-65 provided an upgraded like-new aircraft as the Multi-Mission Cutter Helicopter.  The power plant was replaced with the Turbo 2C2 turbine engines to enhance both power and range. The HH-65 has also been equipped for airborne use of force. The Bell Augusta AB-139 was scheduled to replace the HH-60Js, however, it was decided to upgrade the HH-60Js and transition them to MH-60Ts which have an airborne use of force package capable of both warning and disabling shots as well as crew protection from small arms fire. A short range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) such as the Bell Eagle Eye, designed to be embarked on cutters was evaluated and deemed unsatisfactory. The Coast Guard UAS program is now being conducted in partnership with other government and private entities. 

On September 11, 2001 terrorists crashed two aircraft into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and one into the Pentagon. The President signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the new Department of Homeland Security. Under this legislation the U.S. Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the new Department on March 1, 2003. Section 888 of the Act specifically requires the Coast Guard be maintained as a distinct agency. The present missions are to continue and additional Homeland Security missions have been acquired. Since September 11, 2001 the Coast Guard has placed an emphasis on homeland security efforts. Security-related missions such as ports, waterways and migrant interdiction saw dramatic increases while other missions such as search and rescue have remained constant. Levels of effort for other missions such as drug interdiction and fisheries law enforcement were initially well below pre September 11, 2001 levels but were again brought up to program levels by 2007.

In late 2002, at the request of the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard began preparations for mission specific duties in support of military operations in and around Iraq. The Coast Guard sent two 378 foot WHEC cutters with aviation detachments, a sea-going buoy tender, eight 110 foot patrol boats, Port Security Units, Tactical Law Enforcement teams and support staff.  The Port security Unit and patrol boat deployments have been ongoing.

Operation LIBERTY SHIELD was initiated in 2003. It is a comprehensive national plan designed to protect America’s citizens and infrastructure. The Coast Guard is a major player in this operation. President Bush, in an address at the Port of Philadelphia, said the following in reference to the Coast Guard. “The appropriations bill I signed into law earlier this year increased Coast Guard funding to over $6 billion, the highest level ever. We’re directing new resources to pay for better intelligence capabilities; new technologies to monitor and safeguard our ports; a more modern fleet of Coast Guard cutters and aircraft; and 700 new smaller, faster response boats that will further protect America’s shorelines. By giving the Coast Guard new resources, we are supporting the men and women who defend us all.”

Katrina, a hurricane of catastrophic proportions, devastated New Orleans in 2005. The Coast Guard was highly praised for its rapid and outstanding rescue efforts, maritime pollution response, and management of maritime commerce performances. This was accomplished in spite a breakdown in communications, a failure of the federal government’s National Response Plan and the lack of effective response by state and local officials. The Coast Guard response was made possible by its policy of providing “operational intent” by senior commanders, managed risk, flexibility, and the principle of on-scene initiative in which Coast Guard personnel, from Captain to Petty Officer, are given latitude to act quickly and decisively within the scope of their own authority. The Coast Guard was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its efforts.

The Coast Guard has become more responsive to the needs of our Nation.  Strategic planning and intent has and is being developed to address emerging threats and hazards by an integration of strategy with other agencies. Rotary Wing Interdiction has been established. Airborne use of force is now service wide. The line between National Security and National Defense is blurred and to build out capabilities for National Defense, the Coast Guard is working closely with Navy and Marine Corps partners on a National Maritime Strategy. During 2007 the Arctic with its melting ice cap has become both an economic and defense concern. The Coast Guard has become more change-centric and a learning organization that is capitalizing on lessons learned.

On October 30, 2008 the evolution of the former Aircraft Repair and Supply Center into The Aviation Logistics Center was complete. This enables efficient, flexible, and cost-effective aircraft operations, logistics, and maintenance support.

Upgraded fixed wing search and shipboard- helicopter operations in the Coast Guard proved to be highly successful as force multipliers. This coupled with the development of UASs for surveillance purposes at reduced operational costs led the United States Coast Guard to establish an Unmanned Aircraft System Program Office in 2008 to explore the potential benefits of integrating UAS technology into Coast Guard operations.

A massive earthquake struck Haiti just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. The quake was the worst in the region in more than 200 years. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State said: “Our Coast Guard has been unbelievable. They got there first, as you might guess.” Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, expressed appreciation for the secretary’s remarks and went on to say: “One of the things that is the hallmark of Coast Guard operations is the fact that our units are dispersed around the United States and can flow rather quickly. Ultimately we need the back-up of the larger DOD forces, but in this case we were able to be very responsive.”

On April 20, 2010 an explosion and subsequent fire occurred on the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig. It caused the rig to burn and sink resulting in a massive oil spill. What was initially a rescue operation became what is now considered to be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. The unit was operating in the Macondo Prospect oil field about 40 miles south of the Louisiana coast.

Fourteen C-27J aircraft were acquired in 2014.

Search and Rescue

The Coast Guard is multi-tasked. In addition to migrant interdiction and drug interdiction Coast Guard aviation is tasked with the International Ice Patrol, enforcement of fishery laws at sea, marine environmental protection, aids to navigation, polar operations, joint operations with the other armed services and recently Homeland Security duties, but the one thing that is 24-7, 365 days a year is search and rescue operations.

The Coast Guard does not break down rescue statistics into surface and aviation units but the combined statistics are astonishing. During the period 1995 trough 2010 the Coast Guard responded to 548,461 distress cases, saved 99,487 lives and $11.856 billion dollars in property. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the total lives saved and evacuated safely was 33,735. A total of 76 Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary aircraft took part in the rescues. They flew 1,817 sorties with a total flight time of 4,291.3 hours in the air. The air crews saved 12,535. A total of 42 cutters and 131 small boats also participated, with their crews rescuing 21,200.

Narratives of specific heroic exploits of Coast Guard aircraft crewmembers are much too vast a subject for presentation in this type of format but the magnitude of their achievements is amazing. Individual recognition awards may be viewed on the Coast Guard Aviation Association (Pterodactyl) website.

The Present Era