An ongoing operational assessment of small unmanned aircraft systems aboard a Coast Guard cutter has demonstrated new ways to help in drug interdiction missions and increase the chances of catching drug smugglers at sea without tipping them off and giving them an opportunity to ditch their contraband and other material, the Commandant of the Coast Guard said on Wednesday.
Adm. Paul Zukunft said that “high-flying” aircraft that monitor the long, slender “go-fast” boats used by smugglers to rapidly move their drugs from Colombia to an offload point, typically in Central America, usually fly undetected, but if they come down for a “low pass” then they are spotted. Once the game is up, if the smugglers dump their illicit cargo into the sea, making it difficult to prosecute whoever was on the boat.
In addition to dumping the drugs overboard, the smugglers also ditch “electronics,” which turn out to be a “treasure chest of intelligence” that provides information on the illegal drug network.
“We’re able to connect the dots to where it came from, where the other load is, where the offload is going to be,” Zukunft said at the Surface Navy Association’s (SNA) annual national conference.
But with the small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), the Coast Guard has employed new “tactics and procedures” so as to not tip off the smugglers until it’s too late for them, Zukunft said.
“So now we’re using these unmanned aerial systems as a first vector if you will,” Zukunft said. “And many of these boats will run for several hours. We literally stalk them. We can stalk them as long as they can run and they can’t run indefinitely. So when they finally decide it’s time to take a nap, there’s a knock on the side of the hull. There’s a couple “coasties’ speaking Spanish. They give up the load. They give up the electronics.”
The Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter 418-foot Stratton is current conducting its third operational evaluation patrol with the Boeing’s [BA] Insitu ScanEagle, an sUAS that can be launched and recovered from the vessel. The assessments are helping the Coast Guard establish its requirements for using sUAS aboard its fleet of NSCs, operating concepts and impacts.
Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, director of Acquisition Programs for the Coast Guard, said on Thursday at SNA that his office is hoping to have a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the tactical sUAS out before the end of January. He said the RFP will be an eight-year contract that would provide sUAS for all eight NSCs that are part of the Coast Guard’s program of record.
Congress has actually funded nine NSCs and is debating whether to fund a 10th. A spokeswoman for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate told Defense Daily via an email response to query that the service “is working to provide small unmanned aircraft capability across its entire fleet of National Security Cutters.”
Zukunft said that there are five sUAS aboard the Stratton but the spokeswoman said there is no requirement for a specific number of aircraft but rather for 200 hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services each month. She said the “contractor will be responsible for determining the sparing needed to meet that requirement.”
The sUAS can remain airborne for about 12 hours at a time.
The Coast Guard, through its forthcoming RFP for sUAS, plans to procure contractor-owned and operated services. An award is expected this year.
The ScanEagle is in use with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the Australian army and Canadian military forces. For its operational assessments, the Coast Guard awarded Insitu a potential four-year $12.3 million contract in 2016 to provide the sUAS services aboard the Stratton for assessment purposes. The ScanEagle has also been used in disaster response operations.
During one deployment last year, the Stratton made 11 drug seizures, five of which were aided by the ScanEagle, according to the Coast Guard. In total, the 11 seizures resulted in the capture of more than 50,000-pounds of cocaine worth about $680 million, which more than pays for the production cost of a single NSC.
“It’s really been a great tool for us,” Zukunft said of the sUAS use aboard the Stratton.