Posted 5 years 174 days ago ago by Admin
During my first meeting with the Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) aviation unit, I casually remark, “If you guys work with marine assets around the island, it would be cool to include them in some of our photography.” Without hesitation, the U.S. Army major responsible for handling me pulls out his phone and says, “I know a guy who captains a Coast Guard boat. Maybe I can get him to join us in the bay for some photos with the helicopter.” Soon “Coast Guard guy” is on the phone indicating that he got the supervisor’s approval. If we want to work with his ship, he will be in San Juan Bay around 14:30 for an escort mission. As you will see, such cooperation and coordination is common in Puerto Rico, and born out of necessity.
LAY OF THE LAND … AND SEA
Puerto Rico is a Caribbean archipelago that includes the namesake island, and a number of smaller ones like Mona, Culebra, and Vieques. At 110 miles wide and 40 miles long, the main island is actually quite small, especially when compared to its western neighbor, Hispaniola, which includes the countries of Haiti and Dominican Republic. Still, don’t let Puerto Rico’s small footprint fool you. With over 3.5 million residents and a large tourist population, its diverse terrain has become a mecca for all things outdoors. You can surf world-class waves at dawn, spelunk the world’s largest caves by mid-morning, leap off a jungle waterfall in the afternoon, and summit a 5,000-foot mountain as the sun is going down.
During the night, darker, more hidden activities often occur. Puerto Rico can be a hotbed of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other illegal activities. Although not its primary mission, the PRNG aviation unit plays a vital role in protecting the island and its people from some criminally bad guys.
However, the operational area for the PRNG aviation unit is not just restricted to the island itself. The area extends west to Isla de Mona (an island between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), and all the way east to St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. This expands the operational area to a staggering 7,600 square miles, with much of those miles over water.
In 1898 during the Spanish–American War, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico, landing at Guánica. At war’s end, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris, thereby making the small country a U.S. territory. There have been many iterations of the country’s status since then. It’s people have vacillated from breaking free to become a sovereign nation, to the other end of the spectrum by ceding their independence and seeking to become the 51st state.
Puerto Rico has no representation in the U.S. Congress, but remains under U.S. overarching authority. The territory has its own constitution and local governments. In this complex strategic, political, and economic relationship, Puerto Ricans are natural born U.S. citizens, and the U.S. is obligated to protect the island.
Based in the capital city of San Juan, the PRNG Aviation Element consists of D Company (air ambulance) and Detachment 1 B Company 1-114th Security & Support Battalion with four Airbus UH-72A Lakotas. A Company 2-149th GSAB and its four detachments consists of six Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawks. 777th ASB conducts maintenance, and one C-12 (BE200) fixed-wing aircraft belongs to Detachment 7 C Company 2-641st Aviation Regiment. It takes approximately 24 pilots, 42 mechanics, and 80 support personnel to keep the 11-aircraft unit staffed and mission ready.
The aviation battalion’s mission falls into two basic categories: (1) maintain deployment readiness through training, and (2) protect the island through aerial support activities. These aerial support activities include security and surveillance missions, medevac operations, natural disaster support, and VIP support of government agencies.
The unit keeps a busy schedule, flying an average of 2,000 flight hours per year, with approximately 800 of those hours being flown by the Lakotas. Approximately 70 percent of the unit’s flying is training to maintain a high level of readiness, while the remaining 30 percent is for support missions.
The PRNG aviation unit received its first two UH-72A Lakotas in 2008. They were originally used for traditional Army missions, such as support and medevac operations. Then around 2010, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program assigned Lakotas to Army National Guard units in most states, including two to the PRNG that were outfitted specifically for homeland security, drug interdiction, and border protection. These UH-72As have a Security & Support Battalion (S&S Battalion) Mission Equipment Package (MEP) stacked with assets that include an MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensor and laser-pointer turret, moving map and touch-screen displays, a video management system, a digital video recorder and data downlink system, a 50 million+ candlepower searchlight, and an external rescue hoist from the MEDEVAC package.
In addition to performing traditional Army missions, the S&S Battalion MEP Lakotas fit perfectly into their operational environment. With no shortage of drug smugglers and human traffickers in Puerto Rico’s part of the world, the PRNG aviation unit regularly finds itself working closely with the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ATF, DEA, FBI, and local police. With all aircraft being NVG-compatible, and all pilots qualified to use ANVIS-9 TYPE 7 NVGs, the unit is ready for surveillance and interdiction operations at any time of the day or night.
My impression from the unit’s pilots is that they enjoy flying their aircraft, which definitely meet operational demands. The only possible improvement they might wish for is slightly more horsepower. Being a pilot myself, I doubt I ever met another pilot who didn’t want more power.
Major Carlos Vicens, who is in charge of the aviation unit’s operations, gives a glowing report when it comes to the helicopters’ maintenance and performance. “Fortunately the Lakotas fly a lot and rarely break,” he says. “To their credit, Airbus provides us with extremely fast support, especially given that we are 1,000 miles from the mainland U.S.”
DEPLOYMENTS & SERVICE
Since 9/11, the U.S. has maintained a steady presence in the Middle East. The PRNG aviation unit has proudly served alongside their regular Army colleagues over the last decade, with deployments in 2006-07 and 2011-12. The fixed-wing detachment mobilized in 2009-10 and 2012-13. Currently, the aviation maintenance unit is deployed while the flight unit is mobilizing back to Kuwait.
The aviation unit also supports disaster relief and humanitarian operations south of the U.S. border. For example, PRNG was the first Department of Defense aviation asset to arrive in Haiti and heavily aided in the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 160,000 people in 2010.
However, the unit’s real strength lies in its ability to support missions in Central American and South American nations like Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia, as well as Caribbean countries with large Hispanic populations, like the Dominican Republic. “We want to be the go-to guys when it comes to National Guard support south of the U.S. border,” says Maj. Vicens. “We know the language and the culture in Latin and Hispanic countries, so it’s much easier for us to get the job done, as opposed to say, a unit from Minnesota.” He then laughs, “No offense to NG units in Minnesota!”
The aviation unit’s commanders believe that mini-deployments off island are good. Not only do such deployments leverage the unit’s strengths in support of the larger U.S. Army National Guard mission, but they also stretch crews by providing greater operational experiences. All this makes for a more qualified and capable unit.
I have had the privilege of flying with several National Guard units. One challenge they all seem to share is their limited budgets. They are constantly being asked to perform more tasks with less money. No matter where you go, it’s the military way, and the PRNG is no exception.
Perhaps even more of a challenge for the PRNG aviation unit than its budget, is its geographic location. Unlike say a National Guard unit based in the Midwest, sun and salt punish Puerto Rico’s aircraft. Extraordinary anti-corrosion measures are implemented so that the aircraft and components can meet their service-life requirements.
The unit’s unique challenges are compounded further by its distance from the U.S. Being 1,000 miles away from the mainland means that support can be slow, or in some cases nonexistent. By contrast, if a unit in Colorado has a problem or needs a part, they can approach a neighboring state’s National Guard unit for help. This is not an option for the PRNG.
Puerto Rico’s remoteness brings me back to this story’s beginning, when my handler pulled out his cell phone and called a contact on that Coast Guard boat. Because Puerto Rico is isolated from the U.S. mainland, the PRNG and other agencies (U.S. CBP, Coast Guard, DEA, FBI, and local police) have developed close relationships to create a strong support network. All these agencies really rely on each other and work together towards one common goal: protect La Isla del Encanto … the Island of Enchantment.