Arming the Coast Guard's fleet of helicopters and developing tactics in support of our homeland security responsibilities must be accelerated. The effort is well under way, but it needs the continued support of senior decision makers. It also demands some tough decisions.
The speed and maneuverability of rotary-wing aircraft are vital attributes in any maritime counterterrorism or enhanced law enforcement capability. The problem is that the Coast Guard's current rotary-wing fleet is comprised of aircraft procured and sited based on the needs of a world in which search and rescue was the organization's number-one mission. Today, the Coast Guard's helicopters must be armed to provide teeth to a maritime homeland security capability, as well as to add more teeth to the longstanding drug interdiction effort.
The technical means and intellectual groundwork to develop this capability exist. The funding must be identified to accelerate development and implementation.
Where Do We Want to Be?
To provide security for all manner of events, the Department of Homeland Security must have a Coast Guard that can bring force to bear rapidly on any aggressor in port or offshore. Coast Guard assets must escort high-value assets and high-interest vessels. Tactical boarding teams must be able to take control of compliant and noncompliant vessels rapidly with armed tactical support. Rotarywing aviation provides speed, maneuverability, an elevated angle of fire, and an overhead perspective that no other assets can provide. Together with surface forces and welltrained crews, it offers a formidable capability.
To accomplish point defense and physical control missions, the Coast Guard must be able to call on aviation forces (its own or those of the Navy, Air Force, or other law enforcement agencies) to perform these functions:
* Lethal and nonlethal disabling/destruction of small vessels: Operational commanders must have at their disposal armed Coast Guard assets able to escort vessels or to interdict a designated threat. Air assets will not always be the platforms of choice, but helicopters must be able to project force to interdict a small vessel in a maritime terrorism event. Often, a helicopter might be the only asset available to respond in a timely manner, and failure to interdict and neutralize a threat could have catastrophic consequences. Coast Guard helicopters must be armed with weapons that allow easy installation and removal depending on the mission profile to be flown. All deployable helicopters should be able to perform the counterdrug mission, and select aircraft crews should be able to support vertical insertion tactics by providing warning shots and disabling fire, as well as covering/suppressive fire for air- or surface-deployed law enforcement teams.
* Vertical insertion/extraction of tactical teams: For the Coast Guard, vertical insertion is an essential capability that must involve aircraft with considerable armament and payload capabilities. For insertions on the higher end of the continuum (i.e., opposed boardings), aircrews must be trained in assault tactics. Such assaults require aircraft such as the service's HH-60s for team delivery and armed escort helicopters for cover fire and search and rescue. Conceptually, with targeting based on in-depth analysis of intelligence, teams of aircraft (or aircraft and small boats) will deliver tactical teams and provide covering fire as necessary, while the teams: establish control of the identified ship while still at sea, before it can threaten U.S. ports, waterways, infrastructure, or populations; ascertain legitimacy of the ship, cargo, crew, and intended business, then clear the ship to enter port; or discover the presence of contraband or hostile intent, notify higher authorities, and prosecute the incident as directed.
* Large ship disabling/destruction: The homeland security mission requires the capability, either within the Coast Guard or at its immediate disposal, to use antiship weapons to stop a rogue merchant vessel. This capability demands an enormous investment in training and maintenance, as well as high initial acquisition costs. The use of available Department of Defense assets for this mission should be explored in depth. The communication channels necessary for a Coast Guard operational commander to obtain such a capability also must be established and tested.
Not all of these airborne uses of force are required at every air station, and certainly not at the same levels of readiness. All deployable helicopters and aircrews, however, should be equipped and trained for use-of-force tactics in support of law enforcement and homeland security missions. Maritime homeland security missions understandably merit the most concern, but it is at sea where the more frequent and more visible payoff to this investment will occur. The HH-65, the only helicopter owned by the Coast Guard capable of landing on a ship, must be armed and reengined to provide the power necessary to carry out the full range of force against small vessels and other threats.
Where Are We Now?
With existing assets, training, personnel, and doctrine, Coast Guard aviation is suboptimized for its contribution to homeland security strategies. Long dedicated to maritime search and rescue and maritime patrol, the service's aviation forces only recently have resumed a role and capability in armed interdiction-and only on a very limited level (with one squadron of leased aircraft oriented to efforts against go-fast drug-smuggling boats).
The service's first experiment with an armed helicopter squadron has been a resounding success so far. Helicopter Interdiction Squadron Ten with its MH-68 aircraft has provided the Coast Guard with an effective endgame capability to counter the threat posed by drug runners. Doctrine and tactics have been developed for the counterdrug mission that now must be developed further for the homeland security mission-for the entire Coast Guard. This will be an expensive proposition, and will involve a monumental change in focus and culture.
The HH-65, which comprises the majority of the helicopter fleet, originally was intended to fly 150 miles, hover for 30 minutes, and return 150 miles to complete a single search-and-rescue mission. With the gradual addition of all kinds of mission equipment over the years (including an additional crewman-the rescue swimmer), it is so underpowered it is incapable of single-engine flight in all but the most favorable conditions. The Commandant has committed to accelerating the reengining of the fleet: the 2005 budget contains $99 million for the first year's production, and by 2006 the HH-65 fleet should be equipped with engines that will provide the power and reliability to carry out use-of-force missions. The first two HH-65Cs are undergoing operational testing and evaluation, with one of them having very successfully deployed in a use-of-force configuration. Funding remains to be identified, however, for development of the use-of-force capability in the HH-65 fleet. The HH-60, more powerful and possessing a much greater range, makes up only 25% of the fleet. It is considerably more expensive to acquire and operate, and is incapable of deploying on board Coast Guard ships. A proof of concept of the airborne use of force from an HH-60 is well under way, but no operational HH-60s or HH-65s are armed, and all aircraft (with the exception of those dedicated to training and polar operations) have been sited based on search-and-rescue coverage considerations. Currently, there is no correlation between the basing of aircraft and the location of the nation's strategic ports and infrastructure.
What Do We Need to Get There?
To optimize its efforts in the maritime homeland security environment, the Coast Guard rotary-wing fleet urgently needs the following:
* Capital investments in weapons, armor, communications, and other capability enhancements: While the Deepwater project ostensibly will make this capability available at some point, the need is immediate. "Legacy" aircraft should be equipped as soon as possible for airborne use of force. Air stations supporting Coast Guard missions in strategic ports and those deploying on board Coast Guard ships should be provided with area and precision weapons for use on their aircraft. Both the HH-60 and the HH-65 should be hardened to provide limited defense. Aircraft protection should include Kevlar blankets and self-sealing fuel tanks, and possibly defensive or threat-warning systems. Enhanced communications to increase security and compatibility with local law enforcement is vital. Secure communications capability on local law enforcement frequencies will help avoid overlap and promote interoperability and must be developed further to enhance command-and-control interoperability. Finally, and perhaps most important, the HH-65 engine upgrade, in addition to increasing reliability, will increase dramatically the capability of that airframe to carry weapons and be employed in a tactical mode in every strategic U.S. port.
* Doctrine to prescribe their efforts and contributions: Doctrine, procedures, and tactics are under development, but should not be delayed while waiting for the reengining of the HH-65. Doctrine provides a framework and guidance for our efforts with the capabilities we currently have. It also provides an institutionalized forum for the refinement of our efforts to provide the maximum possible leverage to Coast Guard and local-response forces in support of the homeland security mission. Development of doctrine should not wait until aircraft are configured, and must be pursued in concert with the doctrine for surface forces to maximize the effectiveness of the system. In addition, the differences between drug runners and terrorists require the cultivation of different doctrine and tactics for each.
* Training: Pilots and crewmen must be trained. Tactics and procedures must be developed and then exercised, evaluated, refined, and exercised again. A permanent maritime homeland security standardization team responsible for maintaining doctrine and training in the field should be established. Ideally, this organization would evolve into an interagency antiterrorism standardization and evaluation team that also would connect operational modes (i.e., air, surface, subsurface, land-based). These teams should excel at providing surprise exercises and performing a "red forces" role. Modifications to aviation management plans must address new training/tasking requirements and the need to shed lower-priority tasking or increase programmed flight hours. (If the latter path is taken, all the associated maintenance costs must be recognized and funded.) Regular and frequent exercises also must be held to develop plans and working relationships between agencies. To achieve the President's call for "unity of effort" on the maritime front, rotary-wing forces must coordinate with surface assets to provide the most effective maritime security for high-value assets and designated security zones, or to assault a vessel or other platform.
* Senior leaders' commitment and guidance: Clear and aligned direction from all leaders will be necessary to transform our cultural approach and attitude and adjust to the comprehensive change in mission emphasis. The training overhead for support of maritime homeland security missions will be substantial and require an increasing share of training hours as doctrine and tactics are developed and practiced regularly. Leaders must be willing to accept that a greater number of programmed flight hours will have to be devoted to training to develop and maintain these skill sets. If the capability to disable or destroy large ships is to be obtained from another service, lines of communication must be established and exercised. If an organic capability is sought, an appropriate weapon and delivery platform will have to be identified. Again, a significant training overhead will be involved. Perhaps most difficult, lawyers must help us square the overwhelming need to be able to field this essential capability with our highly valued Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard and our ideals of due process. As long as martial law has not been declared, these domestic actions are not combat-they are law enforcement. How do we fit this into our framework of authorities?
The Department of Homeland security and the Coast Guard stand to gain considerably from the arming of helicopters, across many mission areas. A standardized and widespread airborne use-of-force capability will have broad application, not only for the protection of our ports and waterways, but also for use against drug smugglers in the Caribbean or eastern Pacific or against fisheries violators in the Bering Sea.
Aviation forces are uniquely positioned to contribute, but significant changes in equipment, doctrine, and training are required. Culture and attitude will have to change as well. The Commandant, in the August 2002 Proceedings ("Constancy Amid Great Change"), promised that "the Coast Guard will adjust . . . and be ready to do what is necessary to ensure that maritime homeland safety and security are guaranteed." Americans expect and deserve a Coast Guard that will engage these difficult tasks. Airborne use of force is an important tool with which to accomplish that.