ARLINGTON, Va. - Prior to the devastating attacks of 9/11, the National Guard Counterdrug Program operated under the radar, so to speak. Since 1989, the unique program has supported law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations in the fight against illicit drugs in the United States. However, after the attacks, Counterdrug Soldiers and Airmen stepped outside their normal roles and supported the response efforts with their unique capabilities.
“We directly supported the ongoing rescue and recovery operations in New York City and at the Pentagon,” said Air Guard Col. Earl Bell, chief of the Guard’s Counterdrug Programs. “Our mission essential-equipment was critical to the efforts at the attack sites.”
Their aircraft were among the first ones conducting missions after the attacks.Counterdrug personnel flew the fixed-wing RC-26B aircraft and Reconnaissance and Aerial Interdiction Detachment (RAID) helicopters.They used a Mobile Vehicle Inspection System (MVIS) to support law enforcement missions across the country and along the U.S. border.
They operated five of their 11 twin-engine RC-26B airplanes to move critical personnel and equipment, according to Guard officials. The RAID helicopters (OH-58s) supported operations at the Pentagon by providing video downlinks to the District of Columbia Armory with their Forward Looking Infrared and daytime imagery. Using the MVIS, one of two in the country, Guardsmen supported cargo inspection operations at the Port of Champlain on the New York and Canadian border. The self-contained, mobile inspection system uses gamma ray imaging to identify concealed cargo or detect explosives and narcotics.
“These efforts made Counterdrug visible to support future national emergency or homeland defense missions,” said Air Guard Lt. Col. Mark Tipmongkol, the Counterdrug Domestic Operations branch chief.
Counterdrug’s basic mission has not changed since 9/11. They are still in the business of saving American lives through drug demand reduction programs and support to law enforcement agencies. However, they have expanded their mission from counternarcotics to counternarcoterrorism.
“We conduct a full-spectrum campaign that bridges the gap among Department of Defense and non-Defense institutions in the fight against illicit drugs and transnational threats against the homeland,” said Bell. “Our support helps anticipate, deter and defeat these threats in order to enhance national security and protect our society.”
Last year, after Hurricane Katrina, Counterdrug was again able to support the nation’s rescue and recovery missions. Besides using their aerial assets, the Light Armored Vehicle, an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle, was used to support rescue operations and was directly responsible for saving 604 people.
“Prior to our support for 9/11, Counterdrug was not seen as this asset to assist in homeland defense missions beyond our normal operations,” said Tipmongkol. “Now, we are asked to participate in planning for future events like another hurricane.”
Given its new identity, Counterdrug is being asked to support more missions then ever before. Each mission request still has to pass a litmus test. While response to Katrina was obvious, Counterdrug doesn’t have the authority or funding to support every request. Operation Jump Start, for example, didn’t pass the test even though Counterdrug Guardsmen have been working similar counternarcotics missions along the southwest border since the 1990s.
“The border operation missions for Operation Jump Start don’t have the counterdrug nexus or critical life and death requirements for us to operate under regulation,” said Bell.
Counterdrug, which operates in all 54 states and territories, has more than enough to keep its 2,500 full-time Soldiers and Airmen busy. Last year, the program underwent a major transformation under Bell’s leadership.
Three major initiatives are now the focus of the program: Drug Demand Reduction, Decision Superiority and Combatant Commander Support.
Through Drug Demand Reduction efforts, the program is working with other community-based organizations to establish a science-based and measurable drug education curriculum for school-age children. Decision Superiority efforts support information sharing capabilities among military and law enforcement personnel. Combat Commander Support includes creating teams to support counternarcoterrorism efforts around the world.
These signature programs are all in their implementation stages and are expected to bring Counterdrug even more into the limelight.
“I believe our program used to be one of the best kept secrets in the National Guard,” said Tipmongkol.
Not any more.