By: Warren Gray
“Nox Noctis est Nostri (‘The Night is Ours’)” — Motto of the U.S. Coast Guard MSRT special units.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, but is technically part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), not the Department of Defense (DoD.) It may, however, be transferred to the Department of the Navy at any time, such as World War Two, by the president, or only during wartime, as in World War One, by the Congress. Its primary roles as an active, military service are maritime security, search-and-rescue, and law enforcement. The Coast Guard was initially created by Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and a combat veteran of the Revolutionary War for seven years, in 1790 as the “Revenue-Marine,” under the Department of the Treasury, for collecting customs duties at American seaports.
On January 28, 1915, the Coast Guard (now affectionately nicknamed the “Coasties”) was formally established as a military service, still under the Treasury Department until 1967, when it moved to the new Department of Transportation, and it finally became part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003. While the Coast Guard is the smallest of U.S. military forces in terms of numbers of personnel, it also forms the world’s 12th largest navy, with 243 cutters (vessels more than 65 feet long, and some up to 418 feet long), at least 1,402 boats (vessels less than 65 feet long), and 210 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
There are also five different Coast Guard Special Forces units: The Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) were established in 2002 in response to the horrific, 9/11 terrorist attacks the previous year, to provide a rapid-response force for anti-terrorism assistance, and protecting ports and other maritime facilities from domestic terrorism incidents. Their roles include waterside security, maritime law enforcement, and K9 explosive detection teams. There are 11 MSST units, and they routinely train alongside Navy special boat teams and the FBI. MSST members wear the MSST shoulder patch.
Tactical Law Enforcement Teams (TACLETs) offer specialized, law-enforcement detachments (LEDETs) for military force protection, counter-narcotics (their principal role), anti-piracy, and counterterrorism support. There are only two small units, in Opa-Locka, Florida, and San Diego, California, but they may also deploy internationally, as required, such as to the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. TACLET members wear the gold, Tactical Law Enforcement Badge.
The National Strike Force (NSF), with five units in New Jersey, Alabama, and California, has operated since the early 1970s, primarily for dealing with natural disasters and environmental catastrophes, such as oil spills. They also responded to hazardous-material incidents and weapons of mass destruction.
The Port Security Units (PSUs) have been a hallmark of the Coast Guard since 1917, when the passage of the Espionage Act was made in response to the Black Tom explosion in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1916, as an act of sabotage by German agents to destroy U.S.-manufactured munitions. Today, PSUs provide maritime interdiction, physical security, and humanitarian response in times of need, deployable anywhere in the world within just four days. They operate a fleet of armed, Boston Whaler port-security boats, with M2HB .50-caliber heavy machine guns.
Finally, the Maritime Security Response Teams (MSRTs), established in 2006, are the most-recognizable units, and the closest thing to true, Special Forces capability within the Coast Guard. These are the only USGG teams to act as first responders in terrorist incidents, providing direction action and advanced interdiction along with offensive, counterterrorism (CT) duties. Their primary assault force is the Direct-Action Section (DAS), extensively trained in advanced, close-quarters combat, precision marksmanship, hostage rescue, personnel recovery, small unit tactics, fast-roping, counter-assault tactics, explosives, and maritime law enforcement. MSRT members wear the subdued, MSRT patch on both shoulders.
On July 20, 2007, the Deployable Operations Group (DOG) was formed, to provide properly-trained and organized, Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF), or “DOG Teams” (including MSRTs, MSSTs, LEDETs, PSUs, and the NSF), to the DHS and DoD. It was, in effect, the Coast Guard’s own special operations command, totaling about 3,000 personnel, and it was deployed throughout the world over the next six years in support of national interests, especially countering piracy attacks in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. But, the DOG was decommissioned on October 1, 2013, and its various DSF units were redistributed within the Coast Guard.
Currently, the DSF units, which still exist, are supported by various, high-speed boats, including the 33-foot, Special Purpose Craft-Law Enforcement (SPC-LE), with speeds in excess of 50 knots, the 25-foot, Response Boat, and other small vessels, including DynaMarine Performance Boats D9 (20-foot SPC-AIR) airboats for shallow-water emergencies, such as the Hurricane Sandy USCG response in 2012. Supporting aircraft are primarily the service’s MH-65D/E Dolphin (modified Eurocopter/Airbus SA 366G1 Dauphin) helicopters, especially the eight aircraft assigned to the special, Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
HITRON (their motto is “Force from Above”) is an armed, helicopter squadron, specializing in Airborne Use of Force (AUF) and drug-interdiction missions. It was formally commissioned in 1998, and by March 2017, it had interdicted more than 500 drug-laden vessels, with cocaine and other narcotics seizures totaling over $16.7 billion. They frequently deploy aboard Coast Guard cutters for up to 60 days at a time, searching the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico for illegal, drug-related activity.
The Coast Guard has 210 aircraft, operating from 24 Coast Guard Air Stations, including 14 C-27JSpartan twin-engine transports, 12 HC-130JHercules four-engine transports, 12 HC-144AOcean Sentry (Spanish-made, CASA/AirTech CN-235-300MPPersuaders, also used by Indonesia, Ireland, Spain, and Turkey) twin-engine transports, 42 bright, orange, MH-60T Jayhawk medium-range, rescue helicopters, and 102 orange MH-65D/E Dolphin short-range, rescue and law-enforcement helicopters, operated from 15 Coast Guard Air Stations, including Savannah, Georgia, Jacksonville and Miami, Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas. Coast Guard pilots and aircrews are all trained by the U.S. Navy at Pensacola and Whiting Field, Florida, and they earn gold, Naval Aviator wings.
The Dolphin is a fast helicopter (180 knots airspeed, or 210 mph), constructed in Grand Prairie, Texas (although French-designed, and with French-made engines since 2004), mainly (75%) of corrosion-resistant, composite materials, with a computerized, flight-management system (all-digital on the E-model), capable of automatic hovering 50 feet above a selected object at sea without pilot input, which makes it extremely stable, freeing the pilot and copilot to concentrate on sighting and searching for the object.
The MH-65D/E series is characterized by a low-noise, Fenestron (10 composite blades, or 11 blades on older models, ducted-fan, anti-torque, or “fan-in-fin” arrangement) tail rotor assembly in a circular housing. This system makes the helicopter very quiet, and promotes lateral stability in flight. Fenestron is derived from the Latin word fenestra, meaning “window.”
It’s also an exceptionally stable gun platform, with a very smooth ride, and HITRON’s aircraft each armed with one FN M240H medium machine gun in 7.62mm NATO, and one Barrett M107A1 (long-barrel, 29 inches) or M107CQ (short-barrel, 20 inches) sniper rifle, with an anti-corrosion finish, in .50 BMG, for disabling the outboard engines on fleeing boats. The Barretts are fitted with EOTech holographic sights, and PEQ-15 laser-aiming devices. The squadron also employs the M14 Tactical rifle in 7.62mm NATO, with a Sage Enhanced Battle Rifle stock and improved, Smith Enterprises “Good Iron” muzzle brake, as a designated-marksman rifle. The squadron crews were trained by veteran, Marine Corps gunners on aerial weapons and tactics.
HITRON helicopters have also operated from Royal Netherlands Navy vessels in the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saint Martin, etc.) region, particularly from the 355-foot, HNLMS Holland offshore patrol vessel, in 2014.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the Coast Guard’s elite, MSRT Special Forces units. There are only two such teams, MSRT-East in Chesapeake, Virginia, and MSRT-West in San Diego, California. MSRT members are usually selected from experienced, highly-qualified, law-enforcement officers, often from MSST or TACLET teams. They routinely train with Navy helicopter and boat squadrons, Navy SEAL teams, explosive-ordnance disposal (EOD) units, Marine Corps Maritime Raid Force, Secret Service, FBI, and military special-mission units.
Their Direct-Action Section (DAS) assault force may include team leaders, communications experts, snipers, medics, breachers, observation members, K9 dog handlers, explosives experts, and tactical air controllers. They routinely wear non-standard, gray, assault uniforms, or the same, Crye Precision MultiCam (MC) camouflaged uniforms worn by Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, and other special-mission units, with Merrell Moab-2 hiking boots, exactly the same type preferred by Delta Force and Air Force Special Tactics teams.
Interestingly, parachutist qualification is not required for MSRT duties, and the Coast Guard has no parachute training facility of its own, and no parachutist badge for its uniforms. MSRT members who graduate from the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, as an extra qualification or training measure, however, are permanently allowed to wear Army jump wings, or, if they were on U.S. Navy training orders at the time, Navy/Marine Corps jump wings.
The MSRT uses the standard, compact (with 3.9-inch barrel, and 12 rounds), SIG Sauer P229R-DAK (Double-Action, Kellerman trigger) service pistol (formerly the Beretta M9) in .40 S&W, selected in the most-popular, law-enforcement caliber, a smoother trigger pull, and because it has a corrosion-resistant, milled, stainless-steel slide with black, Nitron finish, and is well-suited for maritime duty. The very compact (with 3.6-inch barrel, and just seven or eight rounds), SIG P239-DAKis also available for concealed-carry operations. Their issued ammunition is Federal 155-grain MK 309 Mod 0 Ball (flat-nosed, full-metal-jacket) or Federal 155-grain MK 308 Mod 0 JHP (jacketed hollowpoint.)
The standard, assault carbine for the Coast Guard is the Colt M4 (formerly the Colt M16A2 rifle) with 14.5-inch barrel, sometimes mounting an M203 40mm grenade launcher, although MSRT members prefer the Mk. 18 CQBR (Close-Quarters Battle Receiver) with 10.3-inch barrel, on a Colt M4A1 lower receiver. Suppressors are sometimes employed. The Mk. 18, which is even shorter than the famous, Colt M4 Commando (with 11.5-inch barrel), was specifically designed for the Navy in 2000, by the Crane Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, near Bloomfield, Indiana.
An Aimpoint M68 or Micro T2 red-dot sight (or EOTech holographic sight), PEQ-2 laser aiming device, and SureFire M500 flashlight are usually attached. This same weapon is the primary carbine of the U.S. Army Special Forces, and Black Hills Mk. 262 77-grain OTM (Open-Tip Match) with Sierra MatchKing bullets seems to be the most-preferred, military load in the Mk. 18, although the 62-grain, M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round in solid copper with a steel, penetrating tip is also in widespread use.
Various tactical knives may be carried, including the Benchmade U.S. Coast Guard Rescue and Survival Knife ($90) with 3.5-inch, blunt-tip, serrated blade, made of N680 Austrian steel, with a Boltaron synthetic, Kydex sheath. Also, Lifesaving Systems Corps makes their Titanium Fixed-Blade Survival Knife #358 ($48) with four-inch, blunt-tip, solid-titanium blade, and Ka-Bar Knives makes a classic, USCG Fighting Knife (American-made, #KA1208, $54-75) with seven-inch, fixed blade, identical to the famous, Ka-Bar Marine Corps Fighting Knife, except with USCG stamp on the 1095 carbon-steel tang, and USCG insignia on the brown, leather sheath (although the sheath itself is made in Mexico.) In World War Two, the Coast Guard had the similar, pre-war, Mark 1 fighting knife, made by Böker, of Germany, which is now a very rare, collector’s item.
MSRT members use the semiautomatic, Knight’s Armament Company (KAC) Mk. 11 (Stoner SR-25 design) and Mk. 11 Mod. 2 sniper rifles in 7.62mm NATO, also used by Navy SEALs and Marine Corps snipers, with 20-inch, Obermeyer (now Krieger) precision, match-grade barrel and 10-round or 20-round magazines.
MSRT shotguns include the Remington 870P (“P” for “Police”) pump-action shotgun with 18-inch barrel (later shortened to 14 inches by USCG gunsmiths), and oddly enough, the Russian-manufactured, Saiga-12Ksemiautomatic shotgun with 16.9-inch barrel and 8-round or 10-round magazines.
An Anti-Swimmer Grenade (ASG), developed for the U.S. Navy in 2007 to replace older, MK3A2 concussion grenades, with three times the explosive mass, and variable detonation depths in 10-foot increments down to 100 feet, is also in use.
In conclusion, the U.S. Coast Guard definitely has its own, highly-capable, Special Forces component, always ready and able to interdict drug-smuggling efforts, prevent piracy on the high seas, and assist the U.S. Navy whenever required. Working together, the elite, MSRT units and HITRON, especially, present a very formidable force, aggressively defending the United States from maritime threats of all types.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.