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Spotting drug subs from the sky

Posted by LT Stephanie Young, USCG

A sinking self-propelled, semi-submersible was interdicted in the Western Caribbean Sea March 30, 2012, by the crews of Coast Guard Cutter Decisive, Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island, Joint Interagency Task Force South and the Honduran Navy. The SPSS sank during the interdiction in thousands of feet of water. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard crews have been hard at work disrupting a rising threat as drug smugglers use increasingly sophisticated and evolving methods to evade authorities in the Caribbean.

First, there was the $180 million cocaine seizure by Coast Guard Cutter Seneca. Then there was Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk and their 24-hour pursuit followed by a double bust resulting in a total cocaine seizure of seven tons. And we can’t forget the latest interdiction from Coast Guard Cutters Decisive and Pea Island. While these cases involved different crews and different circumstances, they all had one thing in common – drug subs.

The typical self-propelled, semi-submersible – commonly referred to as a drug sub – can travel up to 5,000 miles, bringing illicit cargo, whether it be narcotics, goods or people, to the shores of our nation.

A Coast Guard HC-144 in flight. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Dave Silva.

With every drug sub interdiction, we have shared with Compass readers the stories of the men and women who made the missions a success. But in each of these stories one vital asset is mentioned far too briefly – air support.

Aircrews are a fundamental part of the drug interdiction mission but their work mostly goes untold. Perhaps no crew better exemplifies just how key air support is than the crew of the Aviation Training Center Mobile airplane involved in the latest drug sub interdiction.

While our original story only mentioned them in one sentence, they were instrumental in the mission. How instrumental? This aircrew was responsible for the first interdiction of a self-propelled, semi-submersible by an HC-144, on the first day downrange on their first deployment with Joint Interagency Task Force South.

That’s a lot of “firsts” for this aircrew and their success is an indication of what the HC-144 brings to the fight.

The phrase “needle in a haystack” is time and again used to describe the difficulty of spotting something in the vast expanse of the ocean. For an aircrew trying to spot a drug sub, this phrase just isn’t enough. Built in the jungles and remote areas of South America, the typical drug sub is less than 100 feet in length and is specifically designed to be difficult to spot.

In the latest interdiction case, the crewmembers – two observers, two mission system operators and two pilots – were aided by the asset’s unique capabilities.

“Our aircraft has surface search radar, a day/night camera and a mission system pallet that connects both to the rest of the Coast Guard,” said Lt. Justin Hunt, the crew’s aircraft commander. “Our mission system operators are trained to use this equipment to search for objects of interest well beyond what a person aboard the aircraft can see with their eyes.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Rommel Fox, one of the aircrew’s mission system operators, found two targets using the mission system pallet, the plane’s on board sensor control station. This high-tech system allows the crew to operate the aircraft’s sensors and send information – both classified and unclassified – off the aircraft to others who can analyze the data.

The HC-144’s increased endurance gives the Coast Guard a multi-mission aircraft capable of performing such missions as maritime patrol, law enforcement, search and rescue, disaster response and cargo and personnel transport. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Sarah B. Foster.

After finding nothing suspect at their first target, the aircrew flew towards their second. Just as the pilots flew into the position Fox vectored them to, Petty Officer 1st Class Casey Maynard, the crew’s observer, spoke up over the radio: “I see an SPSS! It’s right below us!”

“This was truly a full crew evolution, using the aircraft equipment coupled with diligent searching from the observers in the back,” said Hunt. “Definitely a good day for our crew.”

And with the success of their first deployment with Joint Interagency Task Force South, Hunt looks to the future as he and his crew continue their work with partner agencies to fight transnational organized crime.

“It was great that we were able to use the HC-144 to its full potential on this deployment,” said Hunt. “I had an awesome crew that made this a highly successful deployment. As the first HC-144 crew to deploy in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South, we had the opportunity to establish new relationships with both the Colombian navy and coast guard and the Colombian air force.

Last Updated: 10/04/2019
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