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Death From Above

BAT Defense’s Aerial Target Interdiction

Photos by Jake Swanson

As part of his duties as a Ranger sniper team leader, Jeff Cotto discovered that the training component of his job gave him even more purpose and satisfaction. He took pride in seeing new snipers learn and evolve in their skill set, employing the experiences and lessons learned that made Cotto successful in his many deployments in the GWOT. It was this passion for training that fueled the fire leading to the development of BAT Defense and the multitude of training courses it offers.

When Cotto established BAT Defense, he was aware of the growing trend of instructors from the Special Operations community trying to grab a share of the training market, so creating a company that sets itself apart was crucial. A key component to his business model was to focus on going after local, state, and federal law enforcement contracts, meaning he’d need to provide specialized courses and have the facilities to run them. Finally, he needed cadre who had real-world, relevant, and current experience — instructors who could not only teach the subject matter but also understood how to apply the techniques, tactics, and procedures that would translate to the needs of the client.

BAT Defense offers a wide variety of training to both government and civilians alike. Courses for civilians include everything from pistol, carbine, with precision rifle, to home and vehicle defense, while government training options are even more extensive, and custom courses available to meet the client’s needs.

As a Ranger in the fight against the GWOT, Cotto and his cadre have extensive experience in Aerial Target and Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (ATI/AVI) missions. This type of mission typically involves a shooter secured to a bench bolted to the exterior of a MD500 helicopter — the renowned Little Bird. The shooter would be responsible for delivering accurate fire on specific targets, ranging from vehicles to enemy combatants. A vehicle interdiction mission calls for the shooter to engage a moving vehicle in order to stop it so that soldiers can land and capture the person in the vehicle. Another task involves the shooter engaging an enemy combatant on the ground while the helicopter is flying in to conduct a mission on a target site. Lastly, they could also be tasked with providing overwatch cover from the aircraft, while ground troops conduct an assault on a location.

The specific use of aircraft in this manner is a huge force multiplier for the U.S. military. Cotto and his crew ran countless missions using these techniques, so it was an easy decision to offer this course to his clients. Simple, right? The main reason most organizations can’t conduct these types of courses comes down to facilities, access to aircraft, and experienced pilots willing to risk both their and their passengers’ lives as they rain down fire from above. Finding ranges willing to allow live fire from helos is even tougher.

Located in an abandoned state prison, ALTAIR Training Solutions offers a full spectrum training site for a diverse set of clients, including aerial interdiction. The crown jewel of BAT Defense’s program is the ability to shoot at autonomous, moving targets. Cotto partnered with Marathon Targets, which provides GPS programmable, mobile robots, able to communicate with other units to simulate the actions of a determined enemy. Using the training site, the autonomous wheeled targets map out a specified area and begin moving on command. The student can come on station and engage the moving targets from the aircraft, providing a highly realistic training environment. But it doesn’t end there.

bat defense

When it comes to airborne vehicle interdiction (AVI), not many people would be cool with driving around a facility while people shoot into their vehicle in order to disable it. BAT Defense solved this hurdle by using a “vehicle carrier” manufactured by Pratt Miller, a wheeled sled that operates similarly to the man-sized autonomous targets. The vehicle sits on top of a four-wheeled carrier and is controlled remotely, allowing the student the opportunity to engage the moving vehicle from the aircraft safely and effectively.

While attending this course, it was clear how realistic facilities and capabilities created a uniquely effective training experience. I’ve attended several ATI courses in the past, including training that I’ve organized for my own agency. Shooting from a helicopter wasn’t new for me, but being able to shoot in this type of environment was. The ability to conduct training while using night vision and infrared aiming systems in such a realistic environment was a great training evolution. It’s not very common or easy to come across.

There are numerous components to teaching an ATI/AVI course, but safety is paramount. Cotto and his crew had a tight grip on maintaining control and safety with the students. The classroom portion was detailed but succinct. At no point was there any doubt about what was expected of the students, and a crawl, walk, run methodology was used to get students familiar with operating in and around the aircraft. One very useful teaching blocks to land the aircraft on a one-story building and set up the initial block of instruction.

The students then made their way to the roof and were given the opportunity to actually shoot from the benches under the instruction of the staff. The instructor would go over the commands and hand signals, and then work on directing which targets to engage with the student. This gave those who had never been in this arena a chance to feel what it was like to shoot from the helo before getting airborne. This was done both during the daylight portion as well as the nighttime training.

sheriff helicopter

Initially, the students were broken into teams, and there was a one-to-one student instructor ratio. Several runs were made until each student demonstrated an acceptable level of proficiency. Again, this was done both during the day and nighttime training evolutions. Students very quickly began making first round hits on the steel targets. Coordination between the pilot and the tactical flight officer kept things running smoothly, and there was really never a lot of down time. The course delivered a quality product and a unique training experience. With this instruction under a student’s belt, how could it actually be applied here in the states?

helicopter raid

Looking at the landscape of today’s threats here in the U.S., it doesn’t take long to see that American law enforcement actually has a need for aerial target interdiction (ATI) capabilities. The events of Sept. 11 have brought a new type of threat to our soil. But it’s not just a coordinated act of terrorism that could justify the use of ATI. As far back as the 1960s, there was one of the prime examples of a mass killing, which if repeated today, would absolutely warrant the use of force from an aircraft by law enforcement. In 1966, Charles Whitman made his way to the 28th floor observation deck of the Texas University tower and was able to kill 14 innocents over a period of 95 minutes.

aerial interdiction

As far as civilian applications go, anyone who’s thinking of signing up for a helicopter hog hunt would be well-served by taking an aerial target course first, as this would allow them to maximize their hit probability. Of course, this being America, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a law-abiding citizen participating in an ATI course for the hell of it — shooting is fun; shooting out of a helicopter is funner.

Gear Up
Essential “non-gun” equipment for an ATI course:

One of the most important pieces of gear is a quality retention lanyard along with a good rigger-style belt. These items provide you with quick, secure, and easily detachable safety gear to affix to the external shooting benches on the aircraft.

Due to the rotor wash, some shooters should consider some form of goggle, like the Smith Optic Boogie Regulator. Wrap-around-style eye protection is a minimum due to the flying dust and debris.

A headlamp and small flashlight with a red lens feature is very handy for nighttime use. Being able to get gear prepped before each run without having to fire up a bright white light source is helpful.

Lessons Learned
In regards to shooting at static targets, understanding your closing speed on the target and calculating your reverse leads are critical. Knowing your leads or hold-offs on the moving targets is even more so.

Being able to quickly call your shots and make rapid corrections is what makes an ATI program successful. There’s a lot of communication between pilot and shooter to come on station, locate, identify, and engage a threat. Understanding the hold-offs, reverse leads, etc., requires proper training and repetitions.

BAT Defense is located in southern Florida. Most of their firearms and ATI courses are typically held at the ALTAIR training facility in Immokalee, near Naples, Florida. Students fly into Naples or Miami and drive to the facility.

They have multiple options for accommodations depending on the class size requirements. There are fully furnished, quite plush, three-bedroom apartments that rival most hotels. They also have more basic, dormitory-style housing options for larger groups if needed.

There’s a cafeteria with full staff that can provide all meals. They’re able to meet any dietary needs if something special is required.

There are off-campus dining options within about 20 minutes of the campus.

BAT Defense

night raid

SIG 716 G2 DMR

The Fat Kid Went on a Diet

In deciding on a rifle to run for the BAT Defense Aerial Interdiction course, I wanted to try something different from my previous schools and experiences. Specifically, I wanted to see how a 7.62 semi-auto rifle compared to its 5.56-cal brethren. I had quite a bit of experience shooting the latter and knew that the bump in caliber had its advantages, but most of the offerings in the big-bore semis were bulky and a bit cumbersome.

Enter SIG’s 7.62 G2 DMR. The 7.62 DMR has been out for a few years, and it was built as a legitimate precision semi-auto platform. It delivered consistent sub-MOA performance from its free-floating barrel, was piston driven, and had an adjustable gas block to help tune things when a suppressor was added. One of the early criticisms focussed on its weight and overall length — it was considered heavy and bulky. Even though the rifle was still fresh off the drawing board, SIG sharpened their pencils and put the DMR on a diet.

Cutting weight was a primary design goal for the G2, as well as creating a shorter footprint. The DMRs have traditionally worn 18-inch or longer barrels, with the 16-inch variants being considered patrol models. In the Gen II, the barrel was whacked down and slimmed up, while the gas system changed to a two-position model, with the goal of maintaining accuracy while shedding ounces. The bolt carrier group went on a diet as well with lightening cuts reducing the mass wherever possible.

Most of the remaining components remained the same. There’s still the continuous 1913 top rail that runs the length of the rifle. The lower receiver comes with ambi selector and magazine release, and a quick detach sling swivel is built into the forging. A nice little touch on the lower is the small rubber “wedge” that eliminates any play between the upper and lower receiver. It lends a solid overall feel to the fit of the rifle and keeps things consistent and snug. A two-stage Geissele SSA trigger delivers that ubiquitous Geissele clean break. In keeping with the ambi features, the charging handle works for both righties and lefties, and rounding out the package was SIGs new threaded taper-lock muzzle device that allows for easy use of any of their cans.

So what does all of this add up to? 8.8 pounds, 2 pounds of fat was cut from the original DMR’s weight. So, how did it perform?

My first task was to simply see how bulky it felt in and around the aircraft; honestly, it really wasn’t that different from any other 16-inch AR carbine. There was an increase in weight but it was actually appreciated in this application, as it kept the rifle stable while riding on the Tyler benches outside of the bird. The rotor wash can beat you up and push the rifle around, but the extra mass kept the rifle tracking more consistently. SIG’s muzzle device helped for sure, but the rifle was tame to shoot. The G2 DMR ran without missing a beat, and of the several ammunition types tested, not a single reliability issue arose. Accuracy was as expected and sub-MOA groups were achievable with match ammo.


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