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C.G. considers lasers over bullets

The agency is looking for alternatives to live-ammunition training on the Great Lakes

The agency is looking for alternatives to live-ammunition training on the Great Lakes

Think of it as a sophisticated form of laser tag. After much public uproar, the Coast Guard is looking for alternatives to live-ammunition practice on the Great Lakes, and one of them is a Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES.

“We tested it off of Lake Erie on Aug. 23, and it has gotten positive feedback so far,” says Assistant Public Affairs Officer Robert Lanier.

The Coast Guard’s initial plan — proposed in 2006 and later withdrawn in part due to safety and environmental concerns — was to create 34 permanent security zones in the Great Lakes for live-fire training exercises using M240 machine guns. “We were ready to go for it, but there was great public outcry, mostly a concern that the lead projectiles would cause environmental damage,” says Lanier.

Lanier says the challenge is finding a system that will give officers realistic training. This summer the Coast Guard gave MILES a whirl. “We had two Coast Guard boats; one was hostile, and one was friendly,” says Lanier. “The hostile boat had sensors that could receive the laser signal, and the friendly boat had laser signal transmitters attached to the M240 machine guns.”

When a crewmember pulls the trigger on the unloaded weapon, the transmitter sends a signal then shows whether it hit the hostile boat. A computer program records how many signals were sent, received and missed.

“I think this laser system looks like a good choice,” says Marlene Petrucci, an angler from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., on LakeOntario. “And it would be beautiful not to hear live gunfire coming off the lakes.”

Public meetings on the live-fire proposal were held between October and November 2006, with citizens sharing their concerns, including the safety of boaters in those areas. “We would be in touch with each marina and broadcast to mariners when these weapons exercises would be taking place,” says Lanier. “We also planned to have a separate boat that would not be part of the exercise that would patrol the safety zone. And if a ship attempted to enter the zone, a cease-fire command would be sent out.”

Lanier says an environmental engineering firm hired by the Coast Guard — C2HM Hill, based in Englewood, Colo. — stated that, after careful study, the lead in the bullets would have “minimal or no impact” on the lakes. However, people still had serious concerns about safety.

“I truly believe that national security is first and foremost,” says Petrucci. “But the Great Lakes is a very populated area.”

Petrucci says that from the beginning of the summer until well into the fall she and her husband spend most of their time fishing from their 25-foot Baha Cruiser, “One of the places on the map shown to have these drills was in a very popular fishing spot,” says Petrucci. “It just seemed like there had to be other alternatives.”

MILES might be the silver bullet. “We have gotten very positive feedback on this alternative to the original proposal,” says Lanier. “People noted how quiet the demonstration was, minimizing the sound of gunfire, and from the sky it looked like just a few boats close together.”

Other alternatives the Coast Guard is looking into are training personnel at a Department of Defense facility at Fort Knox, Ky., or having crews attain weapons proficiency aboard cutters on the Atlantic.

“People don’t like to think about it but we are a part of Homeland Security, and our officers need this training,” says Lanier. “We don’t want to make our judgment in haste.”