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Coast Guard Sails Into Situational Awareness

November 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The maritime service is upgrading its command and control systems.

The U.S. Coast Guard is undertaking a massive upgrade of its command and control with an eye toward improving situational awareness. Digitized information will alleviate some of the tasks currently performed manually by crew members actively engaged in operations at sea, and it also will provide a clearer picture of both missions and options.

Unlike the U.S. military services, the Coast Guard is not looking to develop completely new approaches from information technologies. Rather, it aims to incorporate known capabilities that it views as essential for carrying out its diverse missions.

This multifaceted effort, which may last as long as 20 years, includes a $611 million program to revamp coastal safety communications. Concurrent with that thrust is a broader effort to bring the Coast Guard fully into a network-centric environment. The total cost for upgrading the Coast Guard’s command and control (C2) likely will be more than $1 billion.

At the heart of this upgrade is Rescue 21, a program to modernize the Coast Guard’s very high frequency (VHF) maritime safety network. Cdr. Ed Thiedeman, USCG, deputy project manager for Rescue 21, relates that improved situational awareness is a core competency for advancing coastal C2.

“It’s very difficult to command and control when you don’t know what’s out there,” he warrants.

But Rescue 21, formally known as the National Distress and Response System Modernization Project, is not the only major C2 effort underway. The Deepwater project (SIGNAL, December 2002, page 39), which is revitalizing all of the Coast Guard’s larger cutter resources and aircraft, also is modernizing the service’s long-range communications. Its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is a key element of the system-of-systems program. Ensuring that these two primary programs interoperate seamlessly is one of the major tasks facing both initiatives. Other smaller projects that began before Deepwater focus on modernizing elements such as the Coast Guard’s high frequency (HF) infrastructure across the nation.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Comsys 2000 project restructured the Coast Guard’s HF communications network by reducing staffing requirements. This involved placing transmitters at remote sites and consolidating operators in two communications area master stations.

In the late 1990s, the Coast Guard began shifting away from HF as its primary means of long-range communications toward the use of satellite communications. This ongoing effort included partnering with the U.S. Navy and installing Inmarsat systems aboard Coast Guard vessels. Inmarsat access originally was limited to about 15 minutes of telephone calls per day. It evolved to a couple of hours of datalinks, and now leased coverage provides around-the-clock access.

Prior to these two activities, the last major Coast Guard C2 program was the original National Distress and Response System, which was installed in the 1970s.

Cdr. David Vaughn, USCG, chief of C4ISR requirements and architecture division, Operations Capabilities Directorate, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C., admits that the Coast Guard had fallen behind in C2 over the years. However, over the past five years, it has improved in leaps and bounds. Network connectivity is being taken down to levels never before attainable, and ongoing programs hold great promise for the Coast Guard.

“If all the initiatives come to fruition, we will be better than ever,” he warrants.

Under Rescue 21, the Coast Guard will be shifting from all of its old analog radios to digital radios that can operate in the analog world. Not only will this permit legacy interoperability, but it also will improve the Coast Guard’s ability to communicate with other civil government authorities. The radios are compatible with the Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Project 25. This enables a whole range of options that can be selected, depending on the radio’s use. Cdr. Thiedeman offers that this provides much better flexibility, especially for interoperability with other federal, state and local agencies.

“One of the foundations of the Rescue 21 acquisition strategy is to procure a system that is scalable, open and will allow us to replace nodes within the system while maintaining interoperability,” Cdr. Thiedeman relates. “We adopted industry standards; we’re using voice over IP [Internet protocol] and APCO 25. The whole Internet structure that we’re using will allow us to upgrade portions of the system while remaining interoperable with the other portions. This will minimize the need to upgrade by rebuilding the entire system as we are doing now.”

The program is implementing a network-based architecture to replace the legacy point-to-point communications architecture. Cdr. Thiedeman explains that the new system ties the Coast Guard’s remote communications sites into its data network, and this enables routing the data from those transceivers to any point connected to the network. This allows a restoration capability that was not available in the old system that relied on dedicated leased lines. A lost line meant a lost site.

However, the new architecture has disaster recovery packages that will enable personnel to turn to a different medium if necessary. A satellite package that can be dropped in will allow the use of a very small aperture terminal satellite connection to bypass a network outage. The signal would re-enter the network through a groundstation. This effectively will restore a lost site within a matter of hours instead of days, Cdr. Thiedeman warrants.

The Coast Guard also will be able to use a deployable remote communications site that has the same equipment found at a fixed site. However, it is mounted on a truck that can be driven to a critical location for setup within 24 to 48 hours. This could be especially useful if a powerful hurricane—or a terrorist attack—rendered a site inoperable, for example.

Underway for five years, Rescue 21 will achieve its initial operational capability in its first two regions—the Atlantic City and Eastern Shore groups. Formal qualification testing began last month in General Dynamics Decision Systems’ facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. When that testing is completed, system integration testing will begin in the two regions. This will be followed by operational test and evaluation, and the Coast Guard hopes to declare the system operational in those two regions by March 2004. Low-rate initial production has started in four other regions: Port Angeles and Seattle, Washington; Mobile, Alabama; and St. Petersburg, Florida. A total of 15 groups will follow later in 2004, with another 14 groups to follow the next year. All regions should be completed by the end of 2006.

Deepwater’s system-of-systems approach will take up to 20 years to implement, although there has been discussion of accelerating some of its elements. The 123-foot coastal patrol boats that will be the first Deepwater elements deployed will include advanced command, control, communications and computers (C4) systems, but legacy assets also will receive specific C4 upgrades. These upgrades will provide better secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) connectivity along with the Coast Guard C2 that will provide a common operational picture.

For the Coast Guard, operational awareness means maritime domain awareness. This encompasses the coastal zone of, and the approaches to, the United States. In Coast Guard C2, the service is focusing the majority of its attention on establishing and managing maritime domain awareness information. This will have a positive effect on all aspects of the Coast Guard’s missions, from counterterrorism activities to fisheries monitoring.

“We have been pretty blind for several years, and we’re just trying to get a better awareness of what’s going on,” Cdr. Vaughn says.

A sizable portion of the C2 effort is geared toward interoperating with the U.S. military and civil authorities. One of the primary objectives of the Coast Guard’s port security units is to operate seamlessly with the Defense Department in this arena. Where previous units would be stood up to support military operations overseas, the new marine safety and security teams are designated to defend the United States domestically. Most Coast Guard small boat stations currently have limited ability to interoperate with the Defense Department. However, with the incorporation of the APCO Project 25 radios, digital Navy and joint tactical radios will interoperate with their Coast Guard counterparts in both voice and data modes.

“The vision is that, when we finish Rescue 21 and the Deepwater project—and the Defense Department fields its new digital software radios—then we will be able to achieve the level of interoperability that we need to perform our mission.” Cdr. Thiedeman says.

This endeavor is aided by representation within the U.S. Northern Command, offers Lt. Cdr. James Miller, USCG, project officer for the Command, Control, Communications Directorate for Rescue 21. Communications at this level will help bridge some of the interoperability gaps between the Coast Guard and the services.

Interoperating with local civil authorities often can require more than mere technological compatibility. Cdr. Vaughn relates that the bigger issue is frequency planning. “All of the people within the local areas must get together to determine who talks to whom when, who is in control of the network and what are some of the circuit discipline issues. These are probably just as big as the technology challenges,” he maintains.

By digitizing its information systems, the Coast Guard will be able to communicate between its larger assets and its smaller ones more effectively. The shoreside infrastructure will be able to transmit the common operational picture better to other units, Cdr. Vaughn adds.

Cdr. Vaughn relates that in the past the Coast Guard relied on voice communications for its C2. When a boat put to sea, its personnel had to perform 15-minute operational checks to ensure that the vessel was operating properly. This included reporting position and status via voice links every 15 minutes. This age-old method of reporting will be rendered unnecessary by asset tracking in a common operating picture. Not only will Coast Guard officials be able to see the boat’s exact status and location, but crew members on the boat also will be able to see the locations of other Coast Guard assets.

An added data capability will permit crews to send information such as search patterns electronically instead of by voice communications. Not only will this provide greater precision more quickly, it will spare crew members the task of jotting down coordinates on a paper chart in all manner of sea conditions.

Providing a geographic display will remove the need to rely as much on voice communications, Cdr. Vaughn reiterates. “Calling the present National Distress System a ‘system’ is almost kind of a stretch, because it really is a bunch of individual high-level sites connected back to a group,” he states. “With the new system, they will be connected. If, for example, there is a distress call near the boundary of one of the groups, it may be that the other group has a vessel underway near the boundary—and they may be closer to respond than the group whose area it actually is. We never would have a chance to know that now.”

Another asset will be access to database information. Coast Guard crew members rapidly will be able to check the record of a vessel that they must board before even setting foot on its decks. This information also will be more comprehensive in that Coast Guard personnel can learn whether there are any outstanding warrants on crew members onboard the subject vessel.

Having fast access to easily viewable information works both ways. Cdr. Vaughn allows that larger cutters performing law enforcement and counterdrug missions will have better intelligence. While this intelligence display capability cannot be extended easily to helicopters, its information can be relayed readily to the helicopter from its host ship or another large Coast Guard asset.

Lt. Cdr. Miller observes, “Some of the first response vessels are helicopters, and as we put them in harm’s way, we would like to have a better idea of where they are. Some of these tools that we will have will allow them to go directly to an area and reduce that search area. The crews also will be less fatigued.”

Cdr. Thiedeman notes that both Rescue 21 and Deepwater will provide for the tracking of Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. Leaders of both programs are working together to ensure that information can be exchanged seamlessly across the two architectures. Both programs have formed an interoperability working group to ensure that the two systems can exchange this information to provide a consolidated C2.

Often, Coast Guard cutters will transit through several group areas when they pass more than 1,000 miles of coastline, and group officers might not know when they were in their regions. With seamless C2 between Rescue 21 and Deepwater, the information on a Deepwater cutter transiting a patrol area 25 miles off the coast would be displayed to a group commander, who would know that the ship and its helicopter were in that region. Then, if that cutter’s helicopter were to operate in the Rescue 21 region, its position information would be relayed back to Rescue 21 for display in the group commander’s common operational picture.

“The goal is to take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue,” Cdr. Vaughn says.

Commercial standards play a significant role in Coast Guard C2 planning. Deepwater is looking at the 802.11 wireless data standard for providing connectivity between a cutter and small boats or aircraft. Digital selective calling is the emerging international distress and hailing standard in HF, medium frequency and VHF bands, and the Coast Guard is incorporating it into its communications infrastructure. Satellite connectivity is still evolving concurrent with the market.

Only the largest Coast Guard cutters are able to install the Inmarsat B antenna systems needed to take advantage of its connectivity. So, officials are working on developing a small cutter communications package to provide connectivity to these smaller vessels.

The scalable integrated navigation system, or SINS, program addresses the needs of small Coast Guard boats. This system will provide the better situational awareness picture that these smaller vessels need.

Improvements in sensors aim to enhance nighttime operation capabilities. Several years of work are generating better electro-optical infrared equipment for night vision on larger ships. Larger cutters have a mast-mounted gimbal with cameras for thermal or night vision searching. Many of these advances are moving down to small boats and helicopters. The data from these sensors currently is geared toward exploitation by the crew on a single platform, although officials hope that in the future they can input this data into the network-centric environment.

Bandwidth is a major factor limiting this networking development. Cdr. Vaughn allows that, even with its satellite connectivity, the Coast Guard largely is limited to datalinks of only 56 kilobits per second. The Deepwater program should improve this to 128 kilobits per second, but technical hurdles remain. The smaller size of Coast Guard vessels, relative to that of the ships serving the Navy, is one of the inhibitors to expanded bandwidth. The Coast Guard’s vessels cannot easily accommodate the larger antennas required for increased bandwidth.

Another pitfall may lie in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandates environmental compliance with all federal and local regulations. Once the Coast Guard completes a system’s operational test and evaluation, it must ensure that its remote communications sites are in compliance with NEPA. This can be a problem when it comes to siting communications towers, for example. One way of dealing with NEPA limitations is to use existing federal communications towers wherever possible. Failing that, the Coast Guard will look to use commercial towers. In an area that lacks both types, the Coast Guard must build a new tower. While the Coast Guard is trying to minimize that new construction, in only one of the six regions being upgraded did any NEPA concerns arise, and these were resolved through outreach with the local community.

Homeland Security Mission Has Limited Influence on Command and Control

Both Rescue 21 and the Deepwater project will cover most of the U.S. Coast Guard’s command and control (C2) goals, allows Cdr. David Vaughn, USCG, chief of command, control, communications, computers, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) requirements and architecture division, Operations Capabilities Directorate, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. The framework of these improvements was established before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the decision to place the Coast Guard in the new Department of Homeland Security.

Cdr. Ed Thiedeman, USCG, deputy project manager for Rescue 21, relates that immediately after September 11, the Rescue 21 program had to review its requirements and determine whether any changes needed to be made in light of the new emphasis on homeland security. This review found that the basic needs for sharing information and interoperating with federal, state and local partners did not change after the attack. “The basic architecture that we had developed for Rescue 21 still applied in the post-9/11 operational arena,” he states. “It was just that the visibility of certain aspects had changed, and there was more emphasis on interoperability—but from a different point of view. It was now for homeland security and national defense as opposed to coordination of search and rescue and disaster response.”

He observes that many of the Coast Guard’s traditional missions translated smoothly to operations in support of homeland security. For example, maritime environmental response involves coordination among multiple agencies. This activity constitutes the same C2 requirements that apply to homeland security.

Lt. Cdr. James Miller, USCG, project officer for the Command, Control, Communications Directorate for Rescue 21, offers that the increased emphasis on homeland security has helped the Coast Guard enhance and develop its operational situational awareness. This is especially true for identification, processing and mitigating information flow. Rescue 21 will provide operators with better situational awareness for the various missions, he emphasizes.