Coast Guard Ponders Unmanned Eyes, Intel Capabilities

September 14, 2009
By Henry Kenyon

The U.S. Coast Guard is taking steps to enhance its command, control, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities with new unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and network-centric systems for its ships. At a press briefing late last week, RAdm. Ronald J. Robago, USCG, the service's new assistant commandant for acquisitions, discussed steps being taken to evaluate and select a new shipboard UAS.

The Coast Guard is interested in the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which will soon equip the U.S. Navy's littoral combat ships. Under the Coast Guard's original Deepwater plan, UASs would increase ships' operational range ships by providing a search and reconnaissance asset with greater range and endurance than shipboard helicopters. The original UAS platform selected for the Deepwater program, the Bell Helicopter tilt-rotor Eagle Eye UAS, was cancelled due to its technical immaturity, the admiral said.

Adm. Rabago explained that the Coast Guard is considering the Fire Scout because of its maturity, versatility and the advantage of sharing a common platform with the Navy. However, he emphasized that that the service has not yet selected Fire Scout.

Another key issue delaying acquisition is the Fire Scout's lack of a maritime search radar. The key Coast Guard role for a UAS will be to detect and identify ships and boats for a variety of search and rescue, anti-narcotics, anti-piracy and homeland security missions. Adm. Rabago claims that a search radar is key for accomplishing these missions.

Funding is available in the Coast Guard's budget to acquire a variety of UAS platforms, the admiral remarked. For example, the service is also conducting tests with land-based Predator B UAV's for coastal patrol operations. A dry-fit test with a Fire Scout was recently conducted on the Coast Guard's newest ship, USCGC Bertholf. Adm. Rabago explained that the cutter has sufficient onboard space to house and operate the UAVs. He added that the Coast Guard will conduct tests at the end of this month with a Fire Scout equipped with a prototype maritime search radar.

The search radar is important because the Coast Guard and Navy require different missions from their UAVs. Coast Guard ships often operate alone, while Navy vessels work in battle groups. Navy Fire Scouts will rely on targets being detected by shipboard sensors, while the Coast Guard requires the UAVs to operate as search platforms.

Besides acquiring UAS platforms, the Coast Guard is also taking steps to enhance its interoperability with other U.S. military services. The Coast Guard's first national security cutter, the USCGC Bertholf will soon be equipped with a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) to handle classified data. It will be the first Coast Guard ship equipped with a SCIF, which will allow the vessel to operate more closely with Navy and coalition ships.

The admiral explained that the SCIF was not installed in the shipyard, although a space with all the required power and data connections was left in place. The facility will be installed with the assistance of the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Center. All of the Coast Guard's national security cutters will be equipped with SCIFs.

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