Bringing Information Technology to the Coast Guard
The service’s assistant commandant for C4IT looks to digital advancements.
The U.S. Coast Guard is pursuing digital solutions to support its unique set of military, law enforcement, humanitarian, regulatory and diplomatic responsibilities. It is no small feat to provide information technology to its workforce of 87,570, as well as to its cutters, boats, and aircraft that move along the coastline and inland waterways protecting the United States.
The service is one of the five U.S. military forces, as well as a law enforcement agency, a regulatory organization, a first responder, and an intelligence community member, and cannot be swayed by the latest technology. When it rescues citizens from hurricanes or from ships lost at sea, it needs dependable command, control, communications, computers and information technology (C4IT).
“We have to be risk aware,” says Rear Adm. David Dermanelian, USCG, assistant commandant for C4IT (CG-6); and commander, Coast Guard Cyber Command. “We want to leverage state-of-the-market technology. We don’t necessarily want to be at the cutting edge. The cutting edge can be expensive and there’s a fair amount of risk. And the Coast Guard does have limited resources, so we’ve got to be smart about adopting proven technologies and proven capabilities.”
Adm. Dermanelian is responsible for the C4IT supporting the Coast Guard’s unique set of missions: port and waterway security, counter drug operations, navigation aids, search and rescue, marine resources, marine safety, defense readiness, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection, ice operations and law enforcement.
Although 97 percent of the Coast Guard’s workforce is land-based, as a maritime organization the service still needs to deploy IT tools that reach its workforce on icebreakers, cutters, tenders, patrol boats, other vessels and aircraft.
“We’ve got to optimize for those end units that are out there operating,” he notes. “And that requires some pretty innovative thinking because we don’t have a big network connection out to our cutters. The challenge is that our cutters have 1/1000th of the amount of bandwidth that I have at home,” the assistant commandant says. “I’ve got a gigabit at home. But we might have a cutter with 130 Coast Guardsmen and they have a 1 megabit per second connection, so trying to optimize some of these applications to perform well to the men and women who are at sea is very challenging.” Currently, the service is looking at how to optimize applications used on larger ships.
Even fielding Office 365, a task most users take for granted, is not simple. In this case, as the Coast Guard implements the software across the service, it will leverage lessons learned from the U.S. Air Force, “so that we can get mobile email services and a modern computing environment to everybody, including those men and women at sea,” Adm. Dermanelian shares.
Above all, adding information technology requires the right enterprise architecture, the assistant commandant explains. The CG-6 office is currently formalizing its Coast Guard enterprise architecture as the single source of C4IT business and technology information throughout the service to support its digital future. “The idea of the architecture is to be able to operate in a degraded or a disconnected environment for periods of time and allow us to move information when the connection is re-established,” he says.
The architecture needs to accommodate a mobile workforce. “Someone with a mobile device in the Coast Guard is really focused on operating,” Adm. Dermanelian emphasizes. “Our folks that are responding to oil spills or hurricanes or conducting marine inspections are constantly out in the field. So the idea is to be able to operate anytime, anywhere, in any place, with limited or low bandwidth or within a completely disconnected environment. And we have to be able to operate in a denied or degraded environment. Those are a lot of heavy requirements levied upon us.”
In addition, the architecture has to support future or emerging capabilities such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence. “I’ll say this. The way we operate today is going to be much different in five years and definitely in 10 years,” Adm. Dermanelian purports. “The notion of employing artificial intelligence, machine learning, these sort of capabilities, it has to be part of our calculus. The days of owning infrastructure and keeping it maintained is not the way we’re going. We’re going to be employing more commodity services that industry can reliably provide. So our architecture that we’re building needs to account for that.”
The admiral also notes that the Coast Guard will be “embracing the cloud more and more.”
Given the service’s unique operations, any cloud solution must be versatile, allow users to switch between cloud service providers and meet Defense Department requirements. “We’re a Department of Homeland Security Agency and yet we operate within .mil, so we abide by all of the rules and policies set by the Department of Defense,” he clarifies. “We’re a little bit unique in that aspect.” The service is considering having its own private cloud instance that’s commercially hosted. “If we can use milCloud we will, but we’re not opposed to using other commercial cloud services,” Adm. Dermanelian says.
Another important Coast Guard C4IT effort involves improving the service’s logistics information management systems. “We’re basically trying to aggregate all of our logistics systems for our aircraft and for our 1,800 boats and more than 200 cutters,” he says. “A cutter or a boat or an airplane can’t sortie if the maintenance is not done. And so aggregating that logistic system is one of our major formal acquisitions that we have on the books today.” Additionally, a private YouTube channel for the Coast Guard training community lends itself to improved maintenance. “It basically says how to perform maintenance on a radio or on an engine,” he explains. “They’re taking it in two-to-five minute chunks and basically using a podcast, if you will, to demonstrate, not the entire maintenance, but maybe the more difficult steps.” Moreover, the service’s aviation community is exploring the use of virtual reality headsets for training and demonstrations to show Coast Guardsmen “how to perform some of those operations without actually putting yourself in jeopardy or in danger,” Adm. Dermanelian states.
The service also is moving to the use of an electronic health care record system, known as EHRA. For this effort, the Coast Guard is partnering with the Defense Health Agency to furnish a Defense Department-approved solution. EHRA would put electronic records into the hands of Coast Guard medical providers, including outfitting practitioners with mobile devices, the assistant commandant notes.
For improved satellite-based communications, the Coast Guard will rely in part on the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite communications (SATCOM). MUOS, which replaced legacy ultra-high-frequency (UHF) SATCOM, relies on geosynchronous satellites and third-generation commercial Wideband Code Division Multiple Access. The more capable UHF military SATCOM system enables assured communications, narrowband tactical SATCOM and mobile technologies. As part of a four-year effort, the Coast Guard is migrating to the MUOS platform for their ships, cutters and airplanes.
Using the MUOS Navy system of record ensures that the service remains interoperable with Defense Department forces, Adm. Dermanelian explains. The Coast Guard is beginning by pursuing SATCOM-enabled radios. “This is our first year where we have dollars set aside for that, and we’ll begin with the land component: the radios and the connectively associated with MUOS,” he states.
In regard to telephony systems, the Coast Guard is moving away from old-school public branch exchanges (PBX) to a network-centered, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony delivery system, housed at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. “We’ve got 700 sites across the continental U.S. and across the world and many of them still rely on the antiquated PBX, and they’re very expensive,” he says. “But you’ve got to rightsize your network. You’ve got to be able to rely and build a network so that it can handle more traffic over those connectivity transport solutions. VoIP works well, but you’ve got to have pretty reliable, pretty fat pipes at the stations.”
As the Coast Guard continues to rely on its important Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System, known as SAROPS, the service is considering a viable platform for the future to sustain the use of the algorithm, which is highly effective in locating distressed ships or people in moving waters. A virtualized platform to enable the system could play a role, Adm. Dermanelian says.
“Finding someone in the water is extremely hard … and the SAROPS algorithm has proved to be highly effective,” he says. “It takes into account currents, wind and all the environmental factors of how someone in the water or a boat actually drifts. And so the idea would be simply to keep that tool on a viable platform … and in a virtualized environment, [that] is anticipated.”
The Coast Guard wants to use advanced computing facilities but has to balance its dependence on a network. “You have to have very a strong connection wherever you are, because if a search and rescue command center is performing [computations], they are performing that locally,” Adm. Dermanelian explains. “And that center still has to operate, even if it’s disconnected. We frequently have network outages, due to backhoe cuts or fiber optic cuts that happen all the time, even cars hitting telephone poles. So having a local instance of SAROPS, for example, has to be part of our thought process.”
The assistant commandant is also considering how the Coast Guard could best use big data analytics, which may be an area where industry can play a role. “We have hundreds of data pools, and we need to analyze individual data sets, but it is not optimal,” he notes. “We have our research and development center looking at the data pools this year to try to identify what is the value that we could get out of them. And as we’ve experimented with those sorts of capabilities and tools, and we demonstrate or see value in that, you’re going to see a lot more investment in those sort of products and services.”