The Coast Guard has some heavy-duty sighting equipment for rescuing mariners at night or stopping drugrunnersnighttime rescue operations and criminal busts, but federal red tapegulations barns them from being used to save lives or stop criminals.
Because the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department, the U.S. Food and DrugFederal Drug Administration makes the rules on how they can use these lasers — and a lawmaker wants that changed. congressman wants to know why.
In an April 14 letter to the FDA, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R–Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on on Maritime and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, demandsed to know why regulators are hemming in the service.
"Illuminators and laser sights stand to provide a clear advantage during use of force operations and mother missions, but imposed limits on the use of these tools creates needless challenges and safety risks," Hunter wrote in an April 14 letter to the FDA, a copy of which was obtained by Navy Times.
The equipment in question is the Electro-Optical Sensor System and the PEQ-15, a laser sight with an illuminator. ESS is a turret installed on Coast Guard helicopters, with a laser illuminator that can enhance camera images, while PEQ-15 is a rifle sight with a laser illuminator. The Coast Guard is not allowed to use ESS at all, while PEQ-15 can be used on a low setting.
"I don't know whether they see them as medical devices or something," Hunter told Navy Times in a phone interview. "We're going to find out."
The service confirmed that, unlike the rest of the military, they're barred from using these targeting optics — even on the most dangerous missions.
"The regulations limit the use of the ESS because the system was manufactured for DoD use, and is not in compliance with FDA standards," Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chad Saylor, a Coast Guard spokesman, told Navy Times. because, "The Coast Guard does not possess the same ability as DoD to self-certify laser systems."
Spokespeople for the FDA did not respond to queries seeking comment by Monday.
The FDA is reviewing the letter and will respond to Hunter directly, spokeswoman Lyndsay Meyer told Navy Times on Monday.
In 2013, the FDA gave the Coast Guard an exemption for ESS, but required them to demonstrate a list of mechanical safety controls to keep it within FDA regulation.
"The Coast Guard is in the final stages of testing those mechanical control measures following a lengthy re-engineering process," Saylor said.
But Hunter wants to cut out that red tape and allow the Coast Guard to certify its own laser systems, like the other military branches, calling the FDA's process "onerous and burdensome."
"No matter what they think their purview is over lasers, and if there's a rightful reason that they have it, it doesn't matter," Hunter said. "The Coast Guard's an operational military unit — it should fall under the same rules, regulations and waivers as DoD."
Hunter's office had not received a response to the letter as of Monday, chief of staff Joe Kasper confirmed.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.