The NSC has a flight deck and hangars to carry two helicopters, like the MH-60 Jayhawk or MH-65 Dolphin, or a helicopter and unmanned aircraft like ScanEagle. Boardings – either for inspection or interdiction, are conducted by boat. The NSC can carry three boats, including a 36-foot long-range interceptor and two 26-foot over-the-horizon cutter boats. Two can be carried in the stern notch, and one of the OTH boats is carried in the starboard boat davit.
The LRI launches from the stern, and has a cabin to protect the crew on longer missions. There is a pool of LRIs for the Alameda based cutters, and they’ll take one with them when they deploy.
“We’ll have two pursuit teams – primary and secondary – ready to go, and a third team available as backup,” said Lt. Nick Mandozzi, Stratton’s gunnery officer and a boarding team officer.
“We’ll have two pursuit teams – primary and secondary – ready to go, and a third team available as backup,” said Lt. Nick Mandozzi, Stratton’s gunnery officer and a boarding team officer. “A lot of times we’ll start with one – just a primary team – we’ll watch them with the SUAS. The secondary team might be sitting on the mess deck completely gunned up, ready to go.”
“We can deploy with HITRON,” said Mandozzi, referring to the MH-65s of Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Jacksonville, Florida, with aircraft armed with an M240 machine gun and an M107 .50-caliber precision fire weapon that can disable the engines of a boat, even at high speed. “They’re different than search and rescue aircraft. The have a gunner on board instead of a rescue swimmer.”
“We always brief the mission, stress safety, and make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Mandozzi. “But when the alarm rings, the gunner’s mates open up the small arms locker and the teams draw their weapons; we’re putting on our body armor and grabbing our life jackets; and the deck crew is getting ready to launch the boats. Realistically, we can be in the water in a couple of minutes.”
The embarked ScanEagle SUAS enhances the pre-mission briefs for boarding parties and interdiction teams, and well as providing real-time imagery while an interdiction is taking place. “The captain is seeing what his boarding team is seeing,” said Mandozzi. “With the communications we have, you’ve got the captain right there with you.”
The Insitu team operating ScanEagle occupies the portside hangar bay on the Stratton. “That’s where they keep all their equipment, such as the launchers and recovery systems, and do their maintenance,” said Mandozzi. “The starboard side hangar is used for the embarked helicopter, but it is also where the ship would hold detainees if they interdict migrants or traffickers.”
At its normal flying altitude, the ScanEagle can’t be seen or heard by people on the boat.
“When we pre-brief up in CIC, the SUAS allows us to see the boat, and how many people are on board. You can even see if there’s contraband right there on deck. If they start dumping the contraband as we approach, the ScanEagle collects that video, and can even keep an eye on where it is so we can recover it,” Mandozzi said.
Mandozzi said that fisheries boardings are not as fast-paced as drug interdictions, but they can be hazardous. “The SUAS can show our coxswain how the fishing boat is riding, the on-sea conditions, and the best side to approach. It removes some of the uncertainty when you come alongside because you’ve already had a good look at the boat. You can talk to the commanding officer and the executive officer, and your team, and know how you’re going to execute,” he said.
The ship coordinates the efforts of its boats, SUAS and helicopter, and any other assets, such as a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), to safely and effectively prosecute a mission.
When conducting counter-narcotics operations, the ship may be vectored into position by the Joint Interagency Task Force-South in Key West, Florida. “We might get a hot handoff from MPA,” Mandozzi said. “We’ll have our drone overhead so the MPA can peel off, and we never lose sight of the vessel.”
Wieschhorster said the NSC is a vast improvement over previous cutters. “My first ship was a 378. And the capability in seakeeping, intelligence, and the ability to integrate into the defense readiness mission that this ship provides is just leaps and bounds over the 378s,” he said. “The NSC is just so much more advanced.”