Vandenberg Helicopter Crews Help Seize Drugs

By Allen Puckett | December 15, 2005

VANDENBERG Air Force BASE, Calif. - The 76th Helicopter Squadron here helped seize $284 million of marijuana while supporting Joint Task Force North counterdrug operations this year.

The joint task force bases operations on requests for Department of Defense assistance from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Border Patrol in coordination with the U.S. Forest Service.

Because of the training opportunities the operations provide, the squadron volunteered for the missions. But because missions are sensitive, team members withhold their names.

"The mission serves several purposes. For the community and our nation, drugs are off the street," a squadron pilot said. "For the war against terrorism, fewer drugs are available, which, in turn takes money away from organizations that support terrorism.

"For the members of the 76th, aircrews are able to train in an operational setting, allowing them to become better at what they do," he said.
During normal operations, squadron helicopters support the 30th Space Wing here. They provide fire suppression for post-launch disaster control and the Wildland Vegetation Management Program. The Airmen also provide security surveillance and response for wing launch activities and space shuttle recovery operations.
However, for the joint task force missions, they cross over into homeland security support operations.

The joint task force is a DOD organization assigned to U.S. Northern Command. It supports federal law enforcement agencies in the interdiction of suspected transnational threats within and approaches to the continental United States, said Armando Carrasco, a joint task force public affairs officer.

Transnational threats the task force targets include international terrorism, alien smuggling, narcotics trafficking, smuggling of weapons of mass destruction and the delivery systems for such weapons that threaten national security, he said.

The squadron uses its UH-1N Huey helicopters to help the forest service identify and seize marijuana fields grown in isolated areas of the central California. Many of the fields are established by drug-trafficking organizations that routinely employ undocumented aliens.

"Our public lands have been targeted by certain drug-trafficking organizations because they’re very remote, very fertile and they provide good cover to hide their activities," said Senior Special Agent Mark Tarantino, the U.S. Forest Service National Counterdrug Program coordinator.

"Our primary method to detect those growing fields is from the air," he said. "So the military has become an extremely important resource to us."

In 2005, the agency seized more than 1 million plants, with more than 800,000 of those seized in California, Agent Tarantino said.

"The 76th has supported the seizure of approximately 70,000 plants just here on the central coast," the agent said. "Each of those plants can produce about a pound of processed marijuana. So, you’re looking at a few hundred million dollars worth of drugs seized as a result of operations here. Without the folks at Vandenberg, we would not likely have been able to find and remove the plants."

The joint task force missions also leverage the ability of the military to perform its mission in the United States, said a Soldier who is joint task force mission planner.

"NORTHCOM’s mission is to protect the approaches, sovereignty and security of the United States. And we’re doing that day in and day out with these operations," the planner said.

A key factor of those operations is the training squadron Airmen receive, the planner said.

"They get training on the military decision-making process and leadership skills," he said. "They’re performing a real-world mission against a known threat, which you can’t get in any training environment.

If they have follow-ons or deployments, this gives them the training they need to be successful."

The helicopter pilot said, "Because of the JTF-N missions, our crews are better trained and more able to serve the Air Force as warfighters both at home and abroad."
Agent Tarantino said, "Learning to communicate and coordinate between civilian and military units allows us to
adapt to each other’s operations and provides a tremendous amount of flexibility."