Aurora “eyes in the sky” help US Coast Guard keep over five tonnes of cocaine off the streets

An airplane sits on the tarmac with green trees in the background
A CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft sits on the tarmac during Operation CARIBBE in November 2017. (Photo by a member of the Air Task Force).

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Speed, range, and advanced surveillance technology—that’s what the CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft brings to the table on a mission like Operation CARIBBE, which is Canada’s support to Operation MARTILLO, the US-led counter-trafficking mission in the Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean.

Deployed from end-November to mid-December 2017, the Aurora was the third Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) capability to support the operation this fall. Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Nanaimo and Moncton, both maritime coastal defence vessels, also deployed from October to December.

Whereas ships like Nanaimo and Moncton are tasked with tracking and intercepting suspect vessels for US Coast Guard boarding, the Aurora’s role is to fly long distances and survey areas, using its sensors to capture radar and imagery of suspect vessels. Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), the US military task force that leads Operation MARTILLO, uses this information to prioritize suspect vessels and send ships to track and intercept them.

“We can see farther and go faster than a ship can,” explains Major Patrick LeBlanc, Air Task Force Commander of Operation CARIBBE. “It boils down to economy of effort for the ship. Instead of the ship having to search large areas, the information we capture can direct them where to go. Based on our range, our capability and our surveillance equipment, we’re a very qualified machine to do this job.”

For the Air Task Force, a typical day on Operation CARIBBE starts three and a half hours before takeoff, when the maintenance technicians arrive to get the aircraft ready. The air crew arrives shortly after for briefings and to check the aircraft. From there, they fly out to the area they have been tasked to search, which is often a long distance away. There they capture radar and imagery, communicating with JIATFS if they observe anything suspicious. Once the crew returns to base, the CAF mission support personnel download and analyze the imagery and share it with JIATFS.

When the Aurora discovers a suspicious vessel, JIATFS, which manages a number assets from different countries, sends a ship that is within range to intercept it. From there, the embarked United States Coast Guard law enforcement detachment decides whether to board the vessel to search for illicit materials, such as drugs. During a boarding, the Aurora’s role, provided it has enough fuel to do so, is to report on the event as it happens.

Operation MARTILLO is truly a team effort, with ships and aircraft from several nations operating alongside US Coast Guard vessels, and with JIATFS at the heart coordinating their tasks. On working with the US military, Major LeBlanc remarks, “They’re very good at what they do, and are very experienced on this mission. On base, the support they give us is excellent. They are here to make sure we get the mission done, and anything we need they make happen.”

Fall 2017 was a successful season for the Aurora, which identified several suspicious vessels in the eastern Pacific Ocean, resulting in the US Coast Guard seizing or disrupting approximately 5224 kg of cocaine. The 23 air men and women from 405 Squadron in Greenwood that made up the Air Task Force have now headed home, knowing that their efforts have contributed to significantly less illegal narcotics hitting the streets of North America.

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  • An airplane sits on the tarmac with green trees in the background
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