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Coast Guard Sails Toward Infocentric Future

December 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

But funding uncertainties could sink long-overdue modernization.

The U.S. Coast Guard has embarked on an ambitious modernization plan that calls for new ships and aircraft built around a network-centric architecture. The program addresses both the need for a broad-based update of Coast Guard hardware and systems as well as the enhanced homeland security role assigned to the maritime service.

A long-term program lasting possibly three decades will introduce three new classes of cutters and associated small boats, a new fixed-wing manned aircraft fleet, new and upgraded helicopters and a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both land- and cutter-based. All of these assets would be connected by a command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) system designed to interoperate with those of other military services and civil government entities.

Known as the Deepwater program, the multibillion-dollar project will begin with upgrades that eventually give way to all-new platforms that largely draw from commercial and military off-the-shelf systems. It also will introduce new systems designed to interoperate with other U.S. combat networks. However, because of the long-term evolutionary nature of the implementation of this system of systems, the program could conceivably be stalled if constant funding levels are not maintained throughout its planned time frame.

Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman, USCG, program executive officer of the Integrated Deepwater System, explains that Deepwater was designed from the start as a performance-based system of systems, and that performance foundation was based on the definition of the entire spectrum of Coast Guard missions and responsibilities. These missions include maritime security, search and rescue, protection of natural resources, national defense contributions, enforcement of fishery regulations and promotion of commerce and maritime mobility. Most of these missions involve surveillance of brown or blue water as well as detection, classification, identification and prosecution of targets of interest.

Since September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard has not undergone any significant change in its types of missions. Many of the new emphases that may emerge from the enhanced homeland security mission already are fundamental to Deepwater, Adm. Stillman observes.

However, the entire Deepwater endeavor mandates organizational change. “When you begin to look at your operational capability from a system standpoint, it forces you to embrace a new paradigm and transform the way you tend to business,” the admiral continues.

The Deepwater program comprises several elements, including aviation assets, surface assets, command and control and related logistics capabilities. These elements are linked by a core C4ISR capability.

The Coast Guard covers a maritime territory area larger than the land area of the contiguous United States. The country has 95,000 miles of coastline and 3.4 million square miles of water in its national exclusive economic zone.

“If we intend to push our borders out and ensure that we are not wrestling with catastrophic incidents inside the roadstead but well outside the harbor entrance, then you must have a systems approach that maximizes and leverages C4ISR capability,” the admiral points out.

Adm. Stillman states that this C4ISR capability is the single most important construct in Deepwater’s system-of-systems approach, describing it as “truly the overlay and umbrella” that will make the Deepwater approach far more productive than current Coast Guard conditions. “The reality of it is that we are sensor-poor, we are not network-centric capable, and we are the furthest [service] from that in our operational capability today,” he says.

“There is no question that the C4ISR capability is fundamental to a system that can truly prosecute targets of interest using adroit risk management for the ability to take information and turn it into operational knowledge to attend to the task at hand,” the admiral emphasizes.

“The [Coast Guard] commandant has mandated that we truly revolutionize and transform our capability in terms of maritime domain awareness—the ability to truly take multiple venues of information and transform that information into a common operational picture that permits the operator to act with knowledge and alacrity,” Adm. Stillman relates. “In order to do that, you must have superlative C4ISR capability.

“So, that is the driving element that will indeed enhance our performance and do so at best value,” he maintains.

This C4ISR capability will not be as extensive as that of the other military services. However, the Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness will have significant similarities with the network-centric capability that defines the U.S. Navy. The Coast Guard will be leveraging the Navy’s information system capabilities as much as possible. “Some have voiced a long-term desire to have a capability of a maritime NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command],” Adm. Stillman notes.

A common shared architecture will be manifest across multiple domains. This shared architecture will permit flexibility, long-term plug and play, economical pricing and interoperability among Defense Department assets and civil authorities. The Coast Guard is relying heavily on nondevelopmental items and commercial off-the-shelf acquisitions.

For satellite connectivity, INMARSAT will be at the heart of improved commercial satellite communications systems. These will be complemented by access to Defense Department satellites as well.

A fully integrated Coast Guard common command and control (C2) system will offer a shared operational picture, enhanced decision support and filtered real-time and stored information. The C2 system will provide users with varying methods to query multiple databases by using a single query through a common Web-based interface.

A watchstander will be able to pass instructions to a UAV control system while monitoring the vehicle’s sensor imagery. The watchstander also can query for the tactical and logistics status of ships. The C2 system will automatically update data in the common operational picture.

Interoperability is a primary goal of the Deepwater program. The Coast Guard must interoperate both with the military services and with civil organizations in homeland security activities. Adm. Stillman notes, for example, that the Coast Guard must install link capability on its 378-foot cutters to serve the needs of the naval component commander when deployed overseas. Deepwater’s open systems architecture should enable the Coast Guard to incorporate whatever systems are necessary to achieve interoperability over time, he says.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will be enhanced by a host of new sensors, including electro-optic, infrared and inverse synthetic aperture radar. Access to these capabilities will extend down to boarding parties, which will be aided by fiber optic scopes, vapor tracers, density anomaly detectors, radar flashlights and ground penetrating radar.

“We must achieve maritime domain awareness through the fusion of appropriate intelligence from multiple venues,” he warrants. “That in itself is part of this architectural requirement.” Now that the Coast Guard is a full member of the intelligence community, the architecture for access to diverse intelligence data is being defined. Issues such as ISR assets and secure compartmented information facilities are part of this determination.

At the heart of the maritime service’s hardware is its cutter fleet, and Deepwater addresses a problem of creeping obsolescence that has its origins in vessels as old as 60 years. Deepwater’s plans call for replacing the current fleet of cutters with three different vessels.

As an interim step, the Coast Guard’s 110-foot patrol boat is being extended to 123 feet in length. Not only will this boat have dramatically improved C4ISR capabilities, it also will have a stern launching capability that will permit it to disgorge smaller boats to prosecute targets. All 49 of the 1980s-vintage 110-foot cutters will receive this upgrade, the admiral states.

The Coast Guard’s fleet of 12 venerable 378-foot cutters will be replaced by 421-foot ships known as the National Security Cutter, or NSC. This vessel will be far more capable than its predecessor, as it will have a combat systems suite that will be developed in concert with the Navy. This will enable the NSC to handle homeland defense and homeland security missions as well as serve under a naval component commander when deployed overseas. The Coast Guard is looking to procure eight NSCs “at a minimum,” the admiral adds.

The Coast Guard’s 210-foot and 270-foot medium endurance cutters will be upgraded to include portable alien migrant interdiction operations shelters as well as improved C2 and communications. Ultimately, they will be replaced by the Offshore Patrol Cutter, or OPC.

The NSC and the OPC will be able to launch smaller pursuit boats from their sterns. Adm. Stillman relates that these pursuit boats include both short-range rigid-hull, inflatable prosecutors as well as long-range prosecutors that feature over-the-horizon capabilities that allow them to operate independently from the larger surface platform from which they debark.

A third type of cutter, the Fast Response Cutter, is designed to support port security missions such as patrolling near-shore fisheries, choke-point interdiction and barrier patrols. These fast-response vessels would be able to sprint to intercept targets as well as maintain near-shore patrols.

With interoperability in mind, the Coast Guard is looking at partnering with the Navy on its littoral combat ship, Adm. Stillman offers. The Coast Guard already is participating in the requirements build on this ship.

Upgrades to Coast Guard aviation assets begin early in the program timeline. The Falcon and C-130 fixed-wing medium surveillance capability will be replaced by a maritime patrol aircraft, the choice of which is still under study. This aircraft will feature a vastly improved sensor suite and a fully integrated tactical system that will provide a revolutionary increase in the Coast Guard’s surveillance capabilities, the admiral offers.

The HH-65 medium-range helicopter will be re-engineered and lengthened to improve its power and capabilities. This helicopter will be able to deploy from flight-deck-equipped cutters such as the NSC and the OPC.

Deepwater’s UAV fleet will consist of both cutter-based vertical-launch aircraft and land-based UAVs. A version of the high-altitude Global Hawk UAV will be equipped to transmit electro-optic and infrared imagery directly to cutters as well as to shore-based C2 centers. The vertical-launch UAV will be integrated with the Navy’s tactical combat systems architecture to ensure interoperability with the larger sea service when necessary. Most flight-deck-equipped cutters will employ two vertical-launch UAVs primarily to classify and identify targets detected by the cutters’ high-frequency surface wave radar. These two UAVs also can operate in tandem as communications relays for over-the-horizon operations.

A logistics information management system will provide a common information technology focus across all aspects of the Coast Guard’s logistics domain. This will ensure that relevant information is readily available and can be acted on through easy access without encumbrance or delay, the admiral says.

The majority of these upgrades and new systems will draw on commercial and military off-the-shelf assets, Adm. Stillman notes. Some systems, such as the vertical-launch UAV, will require a degree of developmental technology. Largely, however, the Coast Guard aims to bring better value by “stealing shamelessly from the Department of Defense where it makes sense to do so,” the admiral admits.

The Deepwater contract was awarded to Integrated Coast Guard Systems, which is a joint venture established by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The first five years of the contract largely will focus on upgrades of existing assets, although efforts also will lay the groundwork for future elements. These upgrades will encompass 42 existing cutters, all C-130 aircraft and all HH-60J and HH-65 helicopters, along with 17 command facilities ashore.

Next year, 25 of the 110-foot patrol boats will begin receiving 15-year service-life extensions. This will include the lengthening process that turns the boats into 123-foot vessels with stern ramps. The year 2005 will see the delivery of 12 maritime patrol aircraft. In 2006, the Coast Guard will begin receiving eight vertical-launch UAVs as well as the first NSC.

All of these endeavors are contingent on continued funding, however. The biggest challenge facing the implementation of Deepwater is the program’s sustainability over the long term, the admiral states.

“When you take a system-of-systems approach to a complex undertaking, problems related to funding can have a profound impact across multiple domains because you are modernizing and recapitalizing an entire system rather than just a specific asset,” Adm. Stillman relates. “With that in mind, we are absolutely focused on ruthless acquisition.

“When you have to make tradeoffs as far as capability because of the chain of total ownership cost, it forces you to truly be very productive in your discipline and your orientation,” he concludes.

Funding began with $500 million in fiscal year 1998. If the program plays out over its full 30-year design lifetime, the total cost could reach $17 billion. “The reality is that it costs a lot of money to recapitalize the Coast Guard,” Adm. Stillman observes. “Because we are facing block obsolescence across both surface and aviation domains—complemented by the fact that we are woefully behind the power curve as far as our C4ISR capability—you must make a sound investment.

“It costs a lot of money to build a National Security Cutter, to buy replacement aircraft for maritime patrol requirements or to truly transform your C4ISR capability,” he explains. “If you don’t have that money, the only thing you can do is try to keep your existing assets in reasonably good shape. We are pressing those existing assets at a high operational tempo—before as well as after 9/11—and there is only so much money that you can throw at those assets that, in some cases, are up to 60 years old.”

If the $500-million-a-year funding stream were to fall to $300 million for several years, then the active participants—the Coast Guard, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress—would have to “step back and appraise whether or not this is the best use of the taxpayers’ money,” Adm. Stillman warns. A 40-percent reduction in funding for several years would force the service to invest solely in legacy assets.