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MH-68A Stingray / Agusta A109E

The MH-68A Short Range Armed Interdiction helicopters entered service with the US Coast Guard in September 2000. Names associated withe this helicopter include Enforcer, Stingray, Mako and Shark, though by 2004 it was officially named the Sting Ray. The MH-68A is a version of the Agusta A109E "Power" commercial aircraft. Along with the MH-90, the MH-68s equip HITRON Ten which is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. The MH-68s operate from USCG Medium-Endurance cutters in support of the USCG's counter-narcotics mission.

Two MH-68s were procurred for use with Helicopter Interdiction Squadron Ten (HITRON Ten), with an option for an additional six if the platform met Coast Guard requirements under the Airborne Use of Force (AUF) program. The Coast Guard leases eight Augusta-Bell MH-68A helicopters for use in the helicopter interdiction squadron. As these are leased aircraft, there is no major maintenance planned for these helicopters.

The MH-68A is an all-weather, short-range, interdiction helicopter, equipped with the latest navigation, communication, and avionics equipment. This is the first Agusta product in service with any component of the US government. As with the MH-90 Explorer, the MH-68 was armed with various lethal and non-lethal weapons, including the M240G machine gun and a 50-caliber sniper rifle with a laser sight. Other weapons such as stun grenades and entanglement nets were used as needed. The MH-68 was equipped with a Forward-looking InfraRed (FLIR) system for night operations, along with a night-vsion compatible cockpit. It carries an avionics suite similar to that of other Coast Guard helicopters, including HF/VHF/UHF radios capable of clear and encrypted voice transmission and GPS receivers connected to the autopilot.

The U.S. Coast Guard's first patrols in 2002 using tough new tactics employing armed MH-68s, a dedicated version of the twin-engine Agusta A109 Power helicopter, scored a perfect three busts in three attempts against drug-laden speedboats bound for U.S. shores. The U.S. Coast Guard's three interdictions netted a combined total of more than 13,000 pounds of cocaine along with several arrests.

Operational doctrine authorises MH-68 crews to disable the engines through pinpoint rifle fire of suspected vessels that fail to halt following several warnings. These include verbal demands to do so transmitted via loudspeaker, and tracer fire across the vessel's bow.

Owing to an increasingly sophisticated quarry, traditional Coast Guard tactics were successful in seizing only one out of ten suspect vessels. That record of futility prompted the Agency to lease eight MH-68 gunships, now assigned to the USCG's Helicopter Tactical Squadron (HITRON) based in Jacksonville, Florida. HITRON's crews deployed onto USCG cutters patrolling the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The MH-68 is a dedicated version of the Agusta 109 Power helicopter. In 2000, Agusta, an AgustaWestland Company, was awarded a contract by the United States Coast Guard calling for the supply of eight A109 Powers for the USCG's HITRON TEN program. The contract was won by Agusta following a vigorous competition with other major helicopter manufacturers, and marks the first time Agusta has been selected by a Federal agency of the United States to provide helicopters in support of the agency's aviation missions. Final aircraft completion and delivery were provided by Agusta Aerospace Corporation, Agusta's wholly owned U.S. subsidiary in Philadelphia, PA, which is also responsible for HITRON's support.

The United States Coast Guard's Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) Jacksonville, Florida was America's first airborne law enforcement unit trained and authorized to employ Airborne Use of Force or AUF. Initially tasked with interdicting and stopping suspected drug-laden, high-speed vessels known as 'go-fasts,' HITRON has expanded their mission to include Homeland Security, and now staunchly patrols the front lines of America's war on drugs and terrorism, flying specially equipped MH-68A (Photo, above) helicopters. These aircraft employ the latest radar and Forward Looking Infrared sensors as well as state of the art Night Vision Goggles to pierce the night. HITRON arms these helicopters with M-16 5.56mm rifles and M240 7.62mm machine guns for warning shots and self-protection, and the RC50 laser-sighted .50 caliber precision rifle to disable the engines of non-compliant suspect vessels.

For counter drug operations, HITRON aircrews forward deploy aboard Coast Guard cutters for 30-60 day deployments, and aircrews are typically deployed about 120 days a year total. While on deployment, the go-fasts are hunted not only by the MH-68A but also by maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) such as the Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules. If an MPA locates a go-fast, the HITRON crew launches from the cutter and proceeds to the go-fast intercept location. The crew then approaches the suspect vessel with weapons trained on the vessel solely for self-protection. Once over the suspect vessel, the helicopter crew confirms the nationality or lack of nation status and whether the vessel is in fact a suspect smuggling vessel. The aircrew will then attempt to convince the boat crew to stop through the use of sirens, loud speakers, visual hand signals, and radio communications in both English and Spanish. If the vessel stops during this phase, it is boarded and searched by the cutter's boat crew who accompany the chase in an Over-the-Horizon pursuit boat.

If the vessel is found to be carrying drugs, the cutter crew will take appropriate law enforcement actions. If the suspect vessel fails to stop after these numerous visual and verbal warnings, the helicopter crew will take up a firing position alongside the go-fast and fire warning shots across their bow to further compel them to stop. If the warning shots do not convince the suspects to stop, the helicopter crew prepares to disable the vessel by shooting out the go-fast's engines. Using precision, laser-sighted .50 caliber rifles, the helicopter crew positions themselves alongside the fleeing go-fast for disabling shots. Most of the go-fasts have multiple engines, and the helo crew will continue to fire into these engines until the suspects stop or they are forced to stop. Once stopped, the vessel will be boarded by the Coast Guard pursuit boat crew and the smugglers taken into custody.

The H-65 series Dolphin has been in the Coast Guard’s inventory since 1984, operating from air stations ashore and from flight-deck equipped cutters to fulfill search and rescue; law enforcement; and tactical transport mission requirements. The first production MH-65C are equipped with a 7.62mm general purpose machine gun and a .50 caliber precision rifle to disable engines on a non-compliant go-fast vessel, and provide fire support for Coast Guard boarding teams. The first production MH-65C replaced the MH-68 "Stingray" helicopter at the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), the Coast Guard’s dedicated airborne counter-narcotics unit at Jacksonville, Fla.

Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) Jacksonville was the first operational Coast Guard unit to employ the MH-65C and have a total of 10 assigned to replace the MH-68As. Since then, Air Stations Port Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Savannah, New Orleans and Miami have transitioned to MH-65s with the entire fleet converted by FY12.

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Page last modified: 30-03-2012 18:45:18 ZULU