Random Thoughts on CG Aircraft Missions

Hall PH-2
Photo: Coast Guard Hall PH-3 loads depth charges

This started as a response to a comment by JohnnieZ!, but it got to be too long, and perhaps too important a discussion to not to address more fully. The discussion revolved around:

  • The Textron Scorpion, a light two seat jet marketed to the Coast Guard among others as an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) asset (really sort of a manned drone) but with the capability to carry light weapons.
  • Manned alternatives to the Coast Guards land-based UAV requirements.
  • The Coast Guard’s air intercept mission over Washington DC, now being done by H-65s.
  • The use of fixed wing aircraft with an Airborne Use of Force capability in support of Webber class as a substitute for larger cutters with embarked AUF helicopters.
  • The possibility of arming CG fixed wing aircraft in general.
Textron Scorpion

Textron Scorpion

As in many important discussions, there is no simple, obvious answer. I am sure Bill Wells will tell us the roots of this discussion go back to the formation of the Coast Guard’s first aviation unit. The Coast Guard has had a cultural divide between the surface ship side and the aviation side. While surface ships are commonly armed, the aviation side has been traditionally averse to weapons. This has changed somewhat since the advent of the airborne use of force mission, but for some Coast Guard aviators, weapons are still anathema. To some extent this is understandable. Weapons bring additional costs, security concerns, training and maintenance requirements, and a change of self-image.

We will talk about using fixed-wing aircraft, including the three types currently in service or planned (C-130s, C-144s, and C-27Js) as well as the Scorpion and the MC-12/KingAir 350 (an aircraft already in the Customs and Border Protection fleet) in four missions areas,

  • ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance),
  • the DC intercept of general aviation aircraft,
  • airborne use of force for law enforcement, and
  • stopping a terrorist attack.


Photo: JGSDF LR-2, A Beechcraft 350, Super KingAir,  Military designation C-12 Huron

ISR: Incorporating land based UAVs into the Coast Guard’s Maritime Domain Awareness system has proven a bit problematic, due to the requirement to sense and avoid regular air traffic, and the fact that they seem to crash more frequently than expected, making them perhaps more expensive than anticipated. We can of course do this mission with C130s, C-144s, or C-27s, but operating cost is relatively high. There may be a place for manned aircraft with relatively low operating costs, like the Scorpion or MC-12 to replace the unmanned systems. The problem with the Scorpion is, there is no head. It is faster than other Coast Guard aircraft, and if equipped with the right sensors, it could cover a lot of ocean relatively quickly, so  perhaps bladder endurance may not be a problem, but I can’t help but think that the King Air’s crew endurance, probably cruising at a lower altitude, is better. I don’t see the Coast Guard even considering the Scorpion unless it wins the competition for the Air Force’s new trainer, which would guarantee its supportability. None of these manned fixed wing aircraft have the potential of an MQ-4C. But then, if the US Navy is actually going to maintain surveillance of US waters, the Coast Guard many not need to do Maritime Domain Awareness ISR, just tap into Navy data.

The DC intercept: The problems with the current use of H-65s for intercepting general aviation aircraft that violate the standing airspace restrictions over the capital is that: (1) Many general aviation aircraft have a higher maximum air speed than the helicopter. (2) Even if the target is slower, the relatively slow speed of the helicopter may make achieving an intercept problematic. (3) If the aircraft is in fact hostile, the helicopter has to hand over the task of destroying it to an interceptor aircraft or missile battery introducing the possibilities of delays and misdirection.

The first questions that come to mind is, why is the Coast Guard doing this rather than the Marines, Army, or Air National Guard? And why only over DC? The Marines, Army, and, I believe, the National Guard have attack helicopters that appear more appropriate than an H-65. The Textron Scorpion might be even better, but there are other alternatives that are already in the US inventory. Other candidates include


  • The  Beechcraft T-6A Texan II which is already in service with both the Air Force and the Navy as a trainer aircraft and has been modified as a light attack aircraft. It has a 100 knot speed advantage on the H-65.
  • The similar, perhaps even more capable, Embraer A-29 Super Tucano now being  built in Jacksonville, Florida.
  • Even the MC-12 Super King Air looks like it would work better than the H-65 if equipped with an air to air weapon.
  • The H-144, if appropriately armed, would be capable, but probably is more expensive to operate.


Photo credit: Brazilian Air Force. Super Tucano, the type can handles more than 130 weapon configurations, including 70mm rocket launchers, air-to-air missiles and laser-guided bombs, totally integrated into the aircraft’s mission system, with a laser designator

As far as I know, Coast Guard helicopters are not prepared for air to air combat. Even if we used the existing airborne use of force package, while the .50 caliber sniper rifle might be useful, we certainly don’t want a Coast Guard aircraft shooting a manually aimed machine gun at another aircraft over heavily populated areas.

Airborne use of force for law enforcement: In the Webber class cutters, the Coast Guard has an asset that can perform many of the missions normally expected of a medium endurance cutter, including drug and migrant interdiction, but they do not enjoy the advantage of organic aviation assets. There is no helicopter to augment their search, to chase down high speed contacts, or to use force to compel them to stop. When boardings are performed, they have neither a second boat nor an armed helicopter to provide over-watch as their boarding team approaches a suspected trafficer.

Certainly, shore based aircraft can be used to augment their search, but when it is time to compel a high speed contact to stop what are the options? We could almost certainly mount a heavy machine gun system controlled by an electro-optic device. There are gunship versions of all the aircraft the Coast Guard expects to operate that include electro-optic targeting and roll-on/roll-off palletized gun systems (Harvest Hawk (C-130), MC-27J Praetorian, and AC-235 (CN-235/HC-144)). But would it be accurate enough to do disabling fire as is done by helicopter airborne use of force units? Even if not, the armed over-watch function might be worth doing. Would we have lost BMC Terrell Horne III if the smuggler had known an armed aircraft was supporting Chief Horne’s RHIB? We could probably use a lighter .50 cal. rather than a 25 to 40mm gun, but we might want to have the option of the larger weapon for other reasons.

Stopping a terrorist attack: It is a fair question to ask why the Coast Guard should do this rather than the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force? After all, the Army maintained coastal defense fortifications from the founding of the republic until the end of WWII. Until recently the Navy had bases all along the coast with forces organized into Naval Districts (1903-1980) and during WWII they organized the Naval Districts into operational commands called “Sea Frontiers” (1941-1970s) that provided maritime security. The Air Force and Marines certainly also have assets that are capable of performing the mission.

In 1984 the Maritime Defense Zones were established with Coast Guard Area Commanders as third echelon Navy commands. They were primarily intended to counter Soviet forces, but realistically, their concern was always unconventional attacks. When the Soviet Union broke up, the commands appeared to have lost their rational and they were inactivated. But as we found out 9/11, the threat of unconventional attacks remained, and in fact may be increasing. My personal feeling is that the MARDEZ commands should be active at all times.

While the Coast Guard may not have the “Coast Defense” mission in law, the way the Army does, Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security (PWCS), is one of the eleven statutory missions called out in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. If for no other reason than the fact the service is called the Coast Guard, there is some expectation that the Coast Guard will actually guard the coast, at least against unconventional attack.

In some ways the Coast Guard is well positioned to do this. DOD forces concentrate on being forward deployed. When they come back to the US, they stand down, train, and reorganize. Generally they do not have ready crews and ships, boats, or aircraft on standby 24/7. Additionally repeated base closures have resulted in concentration of forces in only a few locations, leaving many ports far from military installations. The Coast Guard on the other hand, has assets and crews that are widely distributed geographically and are either on patrol of on standby ready to react.

As far as I can tell the Coast Guard has relied on its boats, equipped with machine guns to deter or respond to terrorists attacks by small craft, and relies on intelligence and its large cutters and perhaps assistance from other services to deal with threats employing larger vessels.

Should we have the option of arming our fixed wing aircraft? The Coast Guard never used to arm its helicopters or boarding parties, but a need was seen, and it is now routine. Flying armed all the time cuts into the aircraft’s performance reducing speed and range and increasing fuel consumption. Arming aircraft takes time. Weapons require additional training, maintenance, and personnel, and as the weapons become more sophisticated their security raises increasing concern. Still there may be times when it would be desirable to have an armed response, to support units that are inadequately armed, or to respond in cases where surface units are unable to reach the scene in a timely fashion. Guns fired from aircraft also have the advantage of firing down on their target, which is less likely to result in collateral damage than shots fired horizontally from surface units.

Capabilities: We might say, there are five levels of capability we could consider.

  1. Fire warning shots.
  2. Disable small vessels (e.g., the ability to destroy an outboard motor).
  3. Deadly force against exposed individuals.
  4. Stop or sink small vessels
  5. Stop or sink medium to large vessels

The first three levels of force are resident in our airborne use of force helicopters now, and if we wanted to replicate the capability in fixed wing aircraft supporting Webber class cutters, it may be possible to do so with a single gun system, perhaps no larger than .50 cal. This modification might also satisfy the need for a system to intercept general aviation aircraft that might prove hostile after violating airspace over DC.

While the fifth capability, the ability to forcibly stop or sink a medium or large vessel, is probably beyond any reasonable adaptation of the Coast Guard’s existing aircraft, there is at least one adaptation that might allow it to deal with small vessel (up to perhaps 100 tons) with a high degree of confidence, and larger vessels with at least some possibility of success (think “Hail Mary”) with minimum impact on the aircrafts’ structure or other capabilities.

The Marines’ Harvest Hawk modification to their C-130 tankers now includes a modification called the Derringer Door, that allows the aircraft to launch precision guided weapons like the unpowered, gravity-dropped, 33 pound, 43 inch long, Griffin A, from inside the aircraft without depressurizing.  Use of this system against a moving target would require laser designation provided either by the aircraft or perhaps a unit on the surface.


Photo: Interior of Marine Corps KC-130J , with the Derringer Door modification. In the foreground is a rack for up to ten precision guided munitions. On the left is the modified Paratroop door with two tubes that allow these munitions to be dropped from the aircraft without depressurizing.

50 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on CG Aircraft Missions

  1. I have often wondered if a “small” single engine propeller aircraft like the old Skyraider, or the Brazilian Air Force Super Tucano mentioned above, would be an interesting asset for quick response and then loiter detail. It could sprint to a location and then throttle back and search or provide support. External “bomb” mounts could be adapted to drop Mk 25 flares or even life rafts and DMBs. These could even be fitted with RMM capabilities which the copilot could operate to help provide SAR and LE video and FLIR capabilities.

    Anyways, just a random thought…

    • Yes, because it is a two seater, some planning could be done in the aircraft. Only bad thing is, because the are low wing, it is difficult to look directly below, but the Electro-optic would help. They have about half the HP of a C-144, a sixth the HP of a C-27J, and 1/12 that of a C-130J, so it should be proportionately economical.

      The CG used to have B-17s that would drop a lifeboat.

  2. If I remember correctly – the DC air intercept mission originally belonged to the DC ANG wing at Andrews immediately after Sept 11 but ultimately assumed by CBP (cost of keeping the wing at that level of alert may have been cited at the time). The CG assumed the role from CBP around 2005 if I remember correctly.

    That air intercept mission isn’t just performed over DC – it has been “exported” to other locations for events like G12.

    All that being said, I agree, it’s always seemed like an odd mission for the service especially since the USCG doesn’t have a history of doing anything like this. The best I can guess is that since these missions tend to fly well inside US airspace that the thought is that they’re more of a Law Enforcement type of a flight as opposed to an Air Defense flight hence the decision for either CBP or USCG to fly them as opposed to the ANG or a DoD branch.

    The other possibility is the “white hull effect.” Many senior DoD officials have pointed out that the USCG is a unique tool for US diplomacy… A white hulled cutter with US Coast Guard on the side is welcomed in many ports and nations where a grey hull USN ship isn’t. The mission of the USCG gives the service a different image than that of the USN… Could it be that the reason for using USCG aircraft for the air intercept mission is to provide a visible military security presence – without giving off the impression of providing a visible military security presence?

  3. Life saving is a great mission and an important one. But it is just one of the CG missions and not even it’s original mission. Arming aircraft, cutters and boats adequately to protect the U.S. does not take away from their SAR ability. I think the public and congress need to be better educated as to why the CG was created. August 4, 1790 congress authorized the construction of 10 ARMED cutters to prevent smuggling and enforce the tariff laws. July 1, 1797 an act to create a naval armament authorized the President to use the cutters to protect the sea coast and repel hostility to their vessels and commerce. The U.S. Navy was created in 1798 and in 1799 congress passed a law allowing the President to transfer the cutters to operate with the navy in time of war starting the CG’s long standing relationship with the Navy.

    Mark my words there will be a new cold war with Russia and we are all aware of our on going war with Islamic fundamentalists. The CG needs to be armed with the sensors and weapons to fulfill it’s Homeland Security mission and protect the U.S. and it’s people.

  4. Thanks for posting this Chuck. Very interesting look at alternative uses for USCG a/c. There’s a lot of discussion about innovation going around DoD, but don’t hear as much from USCG. The idea of a UAV with reconnaissance and even airborne use of force capability paired with a Sentinel-class patrol boat has a lot of potential. The technology isn’t there yet, but getting closer.

  5. While armed variants of trainers would work well for many of these roles…and cause some cockpit discomfort on a 5 hour plus mission… I think things like the general aviation intercept are due to the CG being under DHS instead of military command. No one in Congress would be happy with a DHS “interceptor”, and so the CG being mixed LE/SAR/Military, they get the job.

    Looking at your description of roles, you basically have described a maritime patrol aircraft with gunfire capability and perhaps the capability of limited (low speed) air-to-air engagement. The first is rather old, old school so far as the CG is concerned; a

    At the present the Navy has 91 low mileage (less than 9000 hours) S-3 Vikings in storage. They were retired early, and are in such good shape, Lockheed proposed converting some to COD aircraft. They have excellent radar and ISR capability (some had lantirn pods), good endurance, and in our politically correct time, does not look like a fighter or particularly aggressive . In fact ordinance can all be kept internal to keep that appearance. A gun could be mounted in the internal bay alongside a single mk46 torpedo for handling large ship interceptions or smaller smart missiles like hellfire. The Lockheed COD plane would have used 35 planes with the remainder turned into parts, that would be the case here. But while the COD mod would have also altered the airframe, CG would go as is thus it would incorporate almost no new changes and therefore require little cost compared to a new aircraft. (Although operations cost will not be the best.) The ASW equipment could be removed and stored for if (when?) the CG gets the ASW mission again.

    Might I make one weird suggestion?
    Bombardier CL-415 amphibious flying boat. Stop laughing, it would work. While being made as airborne firefighters (still in production), if part of the tanks for water/retardant were converted to fuel tanks, it would have the endurance. And the ability to land at sea makes it as useful a rescue plane as the PBY in WW2. For armament a .50 or 25mm in the same remote mount as the CG’s current vessels with an aero-shell to reduce drag could be waist mounted . And the sensors it uses become very helpful as well as Chuck has shown in other threads. It’s low speed would enable a better accuracy…It is more like a fast helo. Some might even keep the firefighting ability for responding to oil rig fires thus fulfilling the CG’s environmental mission as well. It could mount griffin missiles as shown in this thread or mounted under the wings, and a search radar in the nose.

  6. “Uploaded on Jun 23, 2007, A Colombian Air Force T-27 Tucano With the American help from an Inteligence and Survilance aircraft and using a Brazilian made Tucano shoot down a drug smugglers aircraft over the Amazon jungle.”

    Target looked like a Cessna 310 to me. Presume they used their .50 cal for this.

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  8. For missions like our H-65s perform over DC, Singapore is using the Apache Long-bow attack helicopter.
    “Should the need arise, targets can be engaged with the Apache’s Orbital ATK M230 Chain Gun. The Apache crew declined to confirm if aerial targets could be detected and cued with the Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman AN/APG-78 Longbow Fire Control Radar, although the radar product card says that it is able to search, detect, locate, classify and prioritize “multiple moving and stationary targets on land, air, and water in all weather and battlefield conditions.””

    • Interesting mix of aircraft, two flexible armed small transports compared against three more mission centric support aircraft. Special operations community has a long history with the two transports which are based on the PZL Skytruck and Cessna 208 Caravan. And this program is to replace the U-28 which itself is a small transport based on the Pilatus PC-12. So something tell me the MAG MC-208 Guardian and the Sierra Nevada MC-145 Coyote have the upper position.

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  10. “Air Force Wants To Liquidate Its Tiny Light Attack Plane Fleet”

    This might be an opportunity for the Coast Guard to pickup more appropriate aircraft for its air policing mission over Washington, DC, three A-29 Super Tucanos and/or two AT-6E Wolverines, and they likely would cost less per flight hour than the H-65s and they do have a longer endurance.


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