Coast Guard copters show teeth in war game
The U.S. Coast Guard is deploying armed helicopters to head off a possible terrorist raid on Bay Area waters.
In what looked like one of those action movies on late-night television, the Coast Guard showed off its new weapon Monday in a simulated air-and-sea, small-boat gunbattle in the choppy and windy San Pablo Bay in a training exercise.
Two small black boats, manned by crews dressed all in black and carrying simulated rocket-propelled grenades, were intercepted by an orange-colored Coast Guard H-65C Dolphin helicopter. The sinister-looking black boats were "playing the role of the adversary," a Coast Guard officer said - pretending to be terrorists on a raid against a cruise ship, a tanker or one of the bay bridges.
The Coast Guard helicopter was out to stop them. The black boats twisted and dodged, throwing up clouds of spray, and the helicopter swooped down on them like a bird of prey. A marksman aboard the copter fired blank rounds, the sound echoing across the water: rata-tat-tat.
It looked like great fun, but the exercise was deadly serious.
"The terrorist raiders in Mumbai in November came by sea," said Cmdr. Sam Creech, the officer in charge of the Coast Guard's Air Station San Francisco.
"An attack by a small boat on a cruise ship, or a tanker, or one of the bridges here could be devastating."
The Coast Guard's biggest fear is terrorists on a small boat coming out of a marina and firing a missile at a cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers, or a loaded tanker, causing a huge oil spill.
Or an attack on one of the famous bridges - "hitting an icon like the Golden Gate Bridge, for example," he said - "could cause a lot of damage to the American psyche."
The trick, of course, is to have advance intelligence of a possible attack and then intercept it. "America expects we should be able to do more than shake our fists at them," Creech said. "If we could prevent an attack, we could save lives."
One of the anti-terrorist weapons is the Coast Guard's Dolphin helicopters. There are four stationed at the San Francisco International Airport, and more at other Coast Guard locations at major ports.
The helicopters have been equipped with 7.62mm machine guns and what Creech called "a precision firing rifle." The machine guns, said Creech, "would kill everybody " on the boat being attacked from the air. The rifle is for "selective" targets.
He said the Coast Guard training exercises include "judgmental training." This is the key question that has haunted military personnel for centuries: when to open fire.
The helicopters have also been given some protective armor, but Creech would not describe how much armor or other defensive equipment the copters carry.
Within months of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 1991, the Coast Guard deployed a fleet of 25-foot patrol boats armed with machine guns. It has taken longer to deploy the armed helicopters. San Diego and Port Angeles, Wash., were the first cities to have them.
San Francisco's helicopters were armed in January.
The 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Tern acted as a floating headquarters for Monday's exercise. San Pablo Bay, which is wide, fairly shallow and relatively free of ship traffic, is usually used for blank ammunition training.
The Coast Guard also trains in the Pacific Ocean using live ammunition, and Creech said the service conducts surveys in advance to ensure that no marine animals are harmed.