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Small unmanned aircraft system assists national security cutter drug interdictions


A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team aboard the cutter’s long range interceptor II boat interdicts a low-profile go-fast vessel in international waters near Central America Dec. 30, 2017, as recorded by the small unmanned aircraft system on board the cutter. The team apprehended four suspected smugglers and seized more than 3,414 pounds of cocaine worth more than $46 million from the suspected smuggling vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo. Click here for the full video of the interdiction.

The small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) on board the national security cutter (NSC) Stratton aided multiple drug interdictions during the ship’s recent deployment, which included the seizure of five suspected smuggling boats in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Stratton’s success was part of a larger international effort between U.S. and Canadian forces that netted more than 47,000 pounds of cocaine, worth over $721 million, which was offloaded in San Diego Jan. 25.

Stratton’s most recent deployment marked the third time that an NSC was equipped with prototype sUAS capability for assessment during an operational patrol. The sUAS provided real-time imagery of suspected smuggling vessels, which helped minimize safety concerns for interdiction assets and allowed the Stratton crew to better track jettisoned material.

Stratton stopped two low-profile go-fast boats in three days, resulting in the seizure of more than 5,800 pounds of cocaine worth almost $78 million. In all, the cutter seized more than 12,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $165 million.

The unmanned aircraft on Stratton have been “a game-changer for us because they can stay up so long and they have a very wide swath of the water they can look at,” said Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, Eleventh District commanding officer. “When you are trying to find one of these pangas or low-profile vessels, it is hard to spot them on the water. The radars don’t pick them up well if they are painted correctly,” he explained, adding that the unmanned aircraft “absolutely have increased our effectiveness.”

While all the Stratton sUAS assessments have yielded valuable information for the sUAS for NSC acquisition, this deployment was unique because a different crew was involved. On this deployment, Stratton was manned by the crew normally assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Waesche, an Alameda-based NSC currently undergoing structural enhancement work. “This allowed us to get a different crew perspective using the sUAS and essentially provided a fresh set of eyes to determine if the standard operating procedures; concept of operations; and tactics, techniques and procedures we’ve developed will work as envisioned,” said Jeff Bishop, sUAS for NSC program manager.

The Coast Guard plans to release a request for proposal for sUAS for NSC capability this quarter. The contract award for the installation of the chosen UAS on two NSCs is targeted for later this fiscal year.

To view sUAS footage of a Stratton boarding team interdicting a low-profile go-fast vessel, click here.

For more information: Unmanned Aircraft Systems program page