In the late 1990s the US Coast Guard was constantly being outrun by cartels 'go-fast' drug smuggling boats. Enter a secret program dubbed "New Frontier" that saw the use of a new breed of helicopters and interceptor boats, launched from cutters far out at sea, that aimed to fight the enemy's speed with even greater speed and a lot of firepower.
In many ways, New Frontier hearkened back to the days of Prohibition, when the Coast Guard had to take on increasingly well funded rum-runners hitting US shores. Fast forward close to eighty years and the modern Coast Guard, under Commandant James Loy, also needed new ways to fight emerging smuggling capabilities. Above all else he needed a chopper that could operate aboard the small decks of its Medium Endurance Cutters, while still offering a large cabin volume, twin engine reliability, a capable integrated avionics suite, good speed and a huge door from which to fire machine guns and .50 caliber sniper rifles.
The innovative and futuristic looking MD-900 Explorer had the largest cabin in its class and had everything else the USCG was looking for, plus it didn't have a tail rotor, instead using MD Helicopter's proprietary NOTAR vectored thrust tailboom design. This made the helicopter very quiet and able to operate from cramped spaces that standard tail-rotor equipped helicopters of the same class would have had trouble with.
With all this in mind, the Coast Guard quietly leased a pair of the stout little MD-900 Explorers and dubbed them MH-90 Enforcers. Other modifications were added to them under USCG specs, including night vision compatible lighting, a stabilized FLIR turret, an inflatable emergency landing system, armor plating around the cabin and cockpit, a rescue hoist, loud speaker and HF/VHF/UHF radios that could also operate in an encrypted mode. All these modifications were made so that the Coast Guard could even the playing field against the cartels' fleet of go-fast cigarette boats.
The Coast Guard's concept of operations behind the MH-90 was that it would be deployed to Coast Guard vessels operating out at sea in known smuggling channels. Once a target was identified, usually by external intelligence sources such as a maritime patrol aircraft, the MH-90s would launch and intercept the target. In practice, this was often done at night, without any lights on. Because the go-fast's powerful engines made so much noise, their crews would not even hear the quiet MH-90 as it stalked them from above. The MH-90 crew would then direct their mother ship towards the target's location. Once at a range where the Coast Guard's new over-the-horizon pursuit boats, which were also developed under the New Frontier program, could be launched, the MH-90 would guide that boat toward the target for a combined intercept, take-down and boarding.
Once the Coast Guard's interceptor boats were in close range of the smuggler's go-fast boat, a number of things could happen. The helicopter could first radio the go-fast's crew and/or use the loud speaker and siren to command them to stop. If it was night, and that did not work, they could then go 'lights on,' basically showing that a helicopter was right overhead and that they had nowhere to run. The Coast Guard's high-speed boat could also attempt similar tactics as well. Also, the act of throwing flash-bangs, stun grenades and even entangling nets down onto the drug boat could be used to show that the pursuing helicopter meant business and to end the pursuit before it escalated into further violence, potentially of the deadly kind.
If the go-fast kept running the, the MH-90s would use their machine gun to spray stings of fire out over their bow. If that did not work, the MH-90s gunner could then use their .50 caliber rifle equipped with a laser range-finding sight to blast a hole through the go-fast's engines. This would stop the boat in its tracks, at which time Coast Guard personnel in their interceptor boats could then board and secure the vessel while the MH-90 continued to provide armed over-watch and coordination for the arrest and seizure. If at any time the crew of the go-fast tried to fire on the helicopter or another Coast Guard vessel, the MH-90 could let loose with its machine gun and spray down the boat and everyone inside of it, ending the exchange with overwhelming firepower.
During the early stages of the New Frontier program, the Coast Guard's new set of tactics and equipment was seen as highly effective with five go-fasts being stopped, holding a whopping 2,640 pounds of cocaine and 7,000 pounds of weed. Almost immediately, 17 suspects were arrested in these intercepts which led to new intelligence and a better understanding of how the cartels were implementing high-speed boat smuggling operations. Combined, the seizures were said to have an estimated street value of over US$100 million.
Within two years of their introduction into service, the secretive MH-90s and their highly trained crews, just six pilots and four door gunners, had proven that the Coast Guard could be much more effective in the counter-narcotics role with a new set of more aggressive weapons and tactics, the majority centered around an "airborne armed use of force" doctrine. The New Frontier program was officially declassified in 1999 during a large press event, with the exotic looking MH-90 on display in the background.
Out of New Frontier, which was a proof of concept program, came a new and permanent airborne use of force and drug interdiction unit known as the Helicopter Interdiction Squadron, or "HITRON" for short. Since its official founding in 2000, HITRON has grown into one of the most revered and effective units in USCG history.
Because of the program's new "official" profile, and because the short-term lease of the MH-90s was ending, the USCG had to put out a formal bid for a helicopter to expand the role paved by the little MD NOTAR Explorers. In the end the larger, louder, but still very nimble Agusta A109E Power was selected for the job, of which eight aircraft were leased for eight years. This new aircraft would become formally known in USCG service as the MH-68 Stingray.
During initial operations, three out of three attempted intercepts were successful, the results of which netted 13,000lbs of cocaine and resulted in multiple arrests. The HITRON and the MH-68 were off to an incredible start.
The sleek Stingrays would quickly become the stars of the USCG and they would bring the HITRON, and the very idea of armed Coast Guard helicopters, into national view. They appeared in many documentaries, periodicals, TV news magazine segments and Hollywood movies, including, and probably most famously, Michael Bay's cop action comedy Bad Boys II:
HITRON with their new MH-68s in action:
The lease came up on the Coast Guard's movie star MH-68 Stingrays in 2008 and it was not renewed as there had been a major upgrade plan underway for the service's widely used HH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopters. This upgrade would see them receive much more powerful and reliable engines, along with new avionics and many other enhancements that could work well with HITRON's mission. Additionally, having a just two helicopter types in the cash strapped Coast Guard's inventory would save some money and help with logistical planning. Because of the upgraded Dolphin's armed homeland security and HITRON duties, it would be re-designated the MH-65C.
Today HITRON is thriving at is Jacksonville, Florida base. Their tools of the trade have come a long ways since the M16s and Robar bolt action .50 caliber rifles used during New Frontier, with the HITRON's MH-65Cs packing a Barret M107 .50 cal rifle, a pintle mounted M240 7.62 machine gun with thermal sights and an M14 based 7.62mm Enhanced Battle Rifle for the over-watch mission while a boat is being taken down by Coast Guard operators.
The ability to hit a speeding boat's engine block that is hopping through chop, while the shooter is hanging out the side door of a helicopter moving under turbulence with a big .50 caliber rifle balanced on a cross-hatch sling, continues to be a very unique skill set to this day. Because of the challenging, high-intensity and tactical nature of the job, becoming a pilot or gunner in the HITRON is a very competitive process and slots are highly coveted.
In all, HITRON is said to account for about 10% of all the drugs seized coming into the US, which is a staggering figure considering the small size of the unit.
Even though HITRON concept has developed over the years, along with the technology it has to play with, it is amazing how perfectly the concept was originally instituted under Admiral James Loy some 17 years ago. Yet few know that the very heart of this game-changing program was the super-cable and chronically underrated MD-900 Explorers/MH90 Enforcers who wore Coast Guard colors for only a very short, but extremely effective period of time.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com