Autonomous Systems Are ‘Next Wave’ For Coast Guard, Zukunft Says

The Coast Guard is a “decade behind” where it needs to be in terms of fielding and operating unmanned systems, particularly in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the service’s top official said on Tuesday.

“The next wave is autonomous systems,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said at an event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

“I can request forces,” he said, “but those are precious commodities right now when we look at what our ISR needs are around the world.”

Overall, the Coast guard needs resources, that is ships and aircraft, Zukunft said, pointing out that the U.S. forces are aware of more than 80 percent of the illegal drug traffic in the transit zones that is typically originates in Columbia, is dropped off in Central America to be broken down into smaller shipments before heading north to be smuggled into the U.S. While the U.S. has good intelligence on the shipments while they are at sea, the Coast Guard is only able to interdict a relatively small percentage of the drugs, Zukunft and other Coast Guard officials have said.

The larger “demand signal” is the Coast Guard needs more resources, Zukunft said. There aren’t enough ships and aircraft to stop most of the drug shipments, he said, adding that it’s a “numbers game.

The Coast Guard has deployed 11 of its vessels to U.S. Southern Command for operations in its mission space, which includes South and Central America and large areas of the Caribbean. What’s missing is enough air assets for ISR, “which is why we’re looking at unmanned aerial systems; the endurance they provide, the cueing they provide,” Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard is exploring the potential for deploying long-range, high-endurance UAS that could be based outside of the U.S., including an existing forward operating base in El Salvador, and fly over the Eastern Pacific and Wester Caribbean to help patrol the transit zones. The service currently teams with Customs and Border Protection to help operate two maritime variants of the agency’s Predator UAS.

Zukunft noted that about 12 years ago the Coast Guard examined different UAS that could operate off of its ships, including Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Fire Scout aircraft, but found that the operations tail that accompanied the system was more than its platforms could bear.

He mentioned that the Coast Guard’s partnership with the Defense Department helps it leverage defense assets to obtain economies of scale, highlighting the Minotaur mission system developed for DoD that is now being installed on some of the services maritime patrol aircraft to integrate onboard C4ISR systems.

In the unmanned arena, the Coast Guard is also exploring the use of small UAS aboard its high-endurance National Security Cutters, which could be operated when its unsafe to fly manned helicopters and provide additional ISR capabilities to the ships. 

On other matters, Zukunft said that the Coast Guard’s current mission need for new polar icebreakers is still for three heavy and three medium ships. The National Academies of Science last month issued a report recommending the service procure four heavy icebreakers as the most cost-effective solution.

The Coast Guard is considering the possibility of shifting its requirements to six heavy icebreakers but Zukunft said any decision would be premature until the service begins to acquire the first vessel. The Coast Guard hopes to release a Request for Proposal for a heavy icebreaker in FY ’18 and make an award for construction of the first heavy icebreaker in FY ’19.

In their report, the NAS estimates the cost of the first icebreaker to be $983 million and the average unit cost at $791 million if a block buy acquisition strategy is used. Zukunft said that the service is doing tradeoff studies now and is “very confident” that the cost for the first ship will be “south of a billion dollars.”

Zukunft also said that the five industry studies currently underway into heavy icebreaker designs are “ahead of the power curve in doing modeled ice trials [and] looking parent craft designs.” He added that the studies are also looking at potential tradeoffs within the parent craft designs with any eye on meeting requirements but also building in “affordability.”

The icebreakers will be built in the U.S., Zukunft said.

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