Another Rotary Wing Air Intercept (RWAI) Mission

MH-65E interior.

Below is a news release from the Acquistions Directorate (CG-9). This is only the second “Rotary Wing Air Intercept” (RWAI) unit that I have heard of, but this may be a trend. The first unit has been flying over the Washington DC area since the 9/11 attack. Over time, it is likely the realization of a need for air policing will grow, and it looks like at the low and slow end of the spectrum, the Coast Guard is getting the job. 

Air Station Savannah plays key role in airspace security during SpaceX launches

SpaceX Crew-6 launch

The SpaceX Crew-6 launch underway March 2, 2023. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Pilots from Air Station Savannah’s Rotary Wing Air Intercept (RWAI) unit stood ready to take to the skies March 2 in the air station’s new MH-65E Dolphin helicopter to provide security support for the manned SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. While this is the first time that the new Echo model was deployed, it marked the seventh launch for which the air station has provided critical flight restriction enforcement since NASA resumed manned space flights in 2020.

All airspace surrounding a space launch is restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration. The highly trained RWAI crew is poised to fly in very close quarters and intercept any unfamiliar aircraft that might trespass into the restricted airspace during a launch. Pilots who fly for the unit possess exceptional flight skills and decision-making abilities as the mission dictates pilots fly in extremely close quarters with other aircraft in order to intercept them.

The upgraded MH-65E helicopter is also more qualified for the task – the Echo configuration automates more flight control functions through use of the Common Avionics Architecture (CAAS) and Automatic Flight Control systems, allowing pilots to set parameters like altitude limits to prevent accidental overclimb into uncontrolled airspace. This and other upgrades ensure that pilots are able to focus on flying the mission with heightened awareness.

“The Echo drastically increases situational awareness and allows for much more complex mission calculations,” says RWAI pilot Lt. Cmdr. Sam Ingham. “This creates larger safety margins in an inherently dangerous environment.”

According to Aviation Special Missions policy director Lt. Cmdr. Mike Gibson, Air Station Savannah has sent NASA-requested RWAI resources to every official U.S. Government human spaceflight launch as part of Operation Noble Eagle. The latest launch was supported by Lt. Cmdr. Felipe Guardiola, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Gonzales and Petty Officer 2nd Class Connor Covert.

“NASA and the Coast Guard have a great relationship, and we’re happy to come down and help where we can,” said Ingham. “Also, it’s cool to have front row seats to watch rockets go to space.”

The MH-65 Conversion and Sustainment Program regularly receives feedback from the operational fleet on how the capabilities of the upgraded Echo allow the crew to continually be safer and more efficient when executing the mission. “It’s really incredible to hear from these crews that the upgrades to the Echo model are increasing their situational awareness,” said Cmdr. Karyn Forsyth, acquisition program manager for the MH-65. “Crews have more confidence in CAAS and its capabilities, especially when performing these special missions.”

The Coast Guard short range recovery helicopter program delivered the fifth and final MH-65E to Air Station Savannah Jan. 18, making it the ninth air station to fully transition to the upgraded configuration.

For more information: MH-65 Short Range Recovery Helicopter Program page

“The Coast Guard’s MH-65 Helicopter Fleet Is Headed For Trouble” –Forbes + Maybe MQ-8Bs

US Coast Guard photo, by PAC Dana Warr

Craig Hooper, writing for Forbes, brings us a warning about the status of the H-65 fleet.

We knew the Coast Guard was in the process of replacing H-65s with H-60s because they have become increasingly difficult to support.

The Coast Guard has on-going life extension programs for both H-60s and H-65s, but the author thinks progress is too slow.

There are two issues here.

  1. Replacing land-based H-65s
  2. Having helicopters that can operate off the WMECs.

I would like to think the Coast Guard has a workable plan to replace the land based H65s but waiting way too long to start replacement programs does seem to be part of the Coast Guard’s DNA.

As to the helicopters for WMECs, Cooper notes,

“At sea, the Coast Guard’s 27 aged mid-sized cutters cannot fully support the larger footprint of an MH-60 platform. Delays in getting the Coast Guard’s highly anticipated Offshore Patrol Cutter into service means the old cutters will remain in the fleet—and needing Dolphin helicopters—for years.”

As I recall, the 13 WMEC 270s were designed to operate H-60s and Alex Haley looks like her facilities may be large enough as well. Certainly, operating H-60s from the 14 WMEC 210s is a non-starter.

The number of H-65s required solely to support 210 operations is relatively small. Judicious use and cannibalization could probably keep a few operational until the last 210 goes out of service.  That should happen about 2032.

If that is not possible, there is another alternative, UAVs. They could certainly operate Scan Eagle. Another possibility is Fire Scout.

The Navy is phasing out their MQ-8B VTOL drone in favor of the larger MQ-8C. Perhaps the Coast Guard could take over some or all 30 ot the B models and operate them from 210s. They might also be operated alongside H-60s from Bertholf class NSCs and Argus class OPCs. Although they probably cannot do armed overwatch (or maybe they could), they might be a better search asset than the H-65, given their greater endurance. This would also prep the Coast Guard to also participate in the MQ-8C at some time in the future.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 18, 2019) Sailors push an MQ-8B Fire Scout assigned to the Wildcards of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 on the flight deck of the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Josiah J. Kunkle/Released)190918-N-YI115-1004

Interestingly, there is also a comment about the Coast Guard’s role in DOD’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Program,

“Replacement helicopters will be slow to arrive. The U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, says the Service is “looking fifteen or so years down the road at our rotary wing aviation program.” Unless the Coast Guard acts quickly to have their basic performance requirements folded into the Department of Defense’s Future Vertical Lift Initiative, a Coast Guard variant of whatever the Navy gets will likely take two decades—or more—to obtain and field.”

The FVL program is expected to produce at least two airframes, one to replace the H-60 and a smaller aircraft to replace the Army’s scout helicopters.

Thanks to Paul for bringing this to my attention. 

Thailand Buys AT-6 for Coast Guard Type Missions

Defense News reports that Thailand has become the first international customer for the Textron Beechcraft AT-6 light attack aircraft.

Thomas Hammoor, president and CEO of Textron Aviation Defense, said in a statement that the Royal Thai Air Force selected the Beechcraft AT-6 to conduct a broad array of missions in support of border security as well as anti-smuggling, counternarcotics and anti-human trafficking operations.

This is basically the same aircraft Coast Guard aviators train on before they get their wings, but with upgrades. I can’t help but think something like this or the similar Embraer A-29 Super Tucano could handle a lot of ISR missions more economically than what we are using now.

They could be used to scout for D7 Webber class FRCs doing drug or migrant interdiction and provide shots across the bow and over-watch in lieu of a helicopter.

The Washington DC air intercept mission in particular comes to mind. Local searches for overdue boats is another possibility. As you can see these aircraft support integrated electro-optical sensors.

An AT-6 Beechcraft is on display at the 2021 Dubai Airshow. (Agnes Helou/Staff)

Armed, these could also provide a response to terrorist attacks. My earlier ramblings on Coast Guard aircraft missions here.

“US Navy helicopters and Coast Guard snipers are firing on suspected drug traffickers ‘daily,’ top admiral says” –Business Insider

Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Phillips, a precision marksman at Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, displays the weaponry used by a HITRON during missions, February 23, 2010. US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Bobby Nash

Business Insider has a story touting the success of the Navy/Coast Guard team effort in drug interdiction. This seems to be a report on Adm. Craig Faller’s (SOUTHCOM) remarks at the Surface Navy Association symposium in mid-January.

There is strong praise for the HITRON personnel.

“Coast Guard HITRON teams, which are sniper teams, have integrated into US Navy helicopters. So our Navy crews are involved in decisions to use … warning shots and disabling fire daily. I mean, it is a daily event,” Faller added. “We average numbers, sometimes large numbers, of events daily, and they’ve done it safely, effectively, completely in compliance with all the law of war and with precision. [I’m] very proud of that.”

I have to believe the “daily” claim is at least a slight exaggeration, since presumably HITRON was involved in all the cases and the report quotes Cmdr. Ace Castle, public affairs officer for US Coast Guard Atlantic Area, as saying they prosecuted 56 in 2020.

In any case, HITRON is getting a workout and proving their value. Worth noting that they and other Coast Guard law enforcement detachments, also serve on foreign ships working for SouthCom, including British, Canadian, Dutch, and French vessels.