Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate
In fiscal year 2016, the Coast Guard and its partners removed more than 416,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $5.6 billion wholesale from drug transit routes in the Western Hemisphere. The service’s counterdrug operations are crucial in promoting maritime border security and fighting transnational crime organizations.
Coast Guard patrols focus on known threat vectors in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific, but the primary transit zones cover some 6 million square miles. To augment interdiction efforts there, a new Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program effort is investigating the feasibility, costs and benefits of using land-based long-range and ultra-long endurance unmanned aircraft systems (LR/ULE UAS) to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in contraband transit zones.
“Unmanned aircraft systems have the potential of being major force multipliers for the Coast Guard,” said Cmdr. Dan Broadhurst, UAS Division Chief for the Office of Aviation Forces (CG-711). “They can provide persistent, tactical wide-area surveillance, detection, classification and identification functions that we currently do not have access to.”
The Coast Guard already has one active UAS acquisition program. In October 2017, the service entered the obtain phase of a program to procure small UAS capability for its fleet of national security cutters. The added capability will be used to conduct tactical classification and identification operations in support of law enforcement prosecutions by providing real-time imagery, data, target illumination, communications relay, and other capabilities. The sUAS for National Security Council can remain airborne for about 12 continuous hours.
LR/ULE UAS capability differs in size, endurance and payload from the tactical capability provided by the sUAS for NSC. Though not yet fielded, it is envisioned that the LR/ULE UAS would provide multiple days of surveillance and detection while employing sophisticated sensor payloads, including advanced optics and wide-area surface surveillance and detection technologies.
In support of the promise of LR/ULE UAS, Congress appropriated $18 million to the Coast Guard to study these capabilities in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
The first phase of the program involves market research to understand the state of technology available in the LR/ULE UAS market. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, issued a public request for information to gather information on LR/ULE systems and mission equipment packages available from government, industry and academia.
The Coast Guard’s request for information for the RDT&E effort defined minimum requirements for LR/ULE systems capable of operating in the maritime environment, beyond line of sight (via satellite communications), with at least 24 hours endurance, and with a payload that includes sensors and communications relay.
“One of the major goals of this research is to identify the LR/ULE UAS technologies enabling success in other operational theaters, and to apply them to the unique challenges of the maritime environment and transit zone target set,” said Evan Gross, LR/ULE project manager at the RDC. “Success in this effort will be the development of a system concept that augments the current capabilities of the Coast Guard and [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], and provides a platform for future innovation.”
The analyze/select phase of the program will entail preparing an Analysis of Alternatives focused on available systems and mission equipment packages identified in the market research. This analysis will consider three elements: benefit, feasibility and cost in comparison with legacy manned maritime patrol aircraft. Benefit will be derived from the simulation and modeling of data for various systems, informing the ultimate cost and feasibility of deploying these technologies in transit zones.
“Now that we are wrapping up our market research, modeling efforts, and interim analysis of alternatives, we are able to scope our 2019 proof of concept technology demonstration to UAS capabilities best suited to the Coast Guard’s counter-narcotics mission,” said Scott Craig, System/Air Domain Lead for the RDT&E Program.