NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–The Coast Guard wants to obtain its own fleet of land-based, forward-deployed, long-range unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to give persistent surveillance capability in the maritime environment, Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, said on Monday.

Zukunft last month in the annual State of the Coast Guard address said the service needs to acquire land-based UAS “in a meaningful way.” He told Defense Daily on Monday at the annual Navy League Sea Air Space conference that these UAS would be forward-deployed to operate in the transit zones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

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

The transit zones are where drug traffickers operating out of South America, typically Columbia, transport their drugs in bulk before landing them in Central America where the shipments are broken down into smaller parcels before making the journey to the U.S. The Coast Guard operates in the transit zones with its ships and manned aircraft, with support of aircraft owned and operated by Customs and Border Protection.

CBP operates two versions of the General Atomics-built Predator UAS for operations over land and maritime environments. The agency has two Guardian UAS, which are marinized variants of the Predator, that are equipped with Raytheon’s [RTN] SeaVue radar to better detect and track surface targets in the maritime environment.

But the Coast Guard needs more surveillance assets to patrol the vast expanses that drug traffickers use to move their products from South to Central America.

“We don’t have enough surveillance,” Zukunft told the audience. “We don’t have enough surveillance to go after illicit flows that are mostly in the Western Hemisphere.” He said the Coast Guard needs its own long-range, land-based UAS assets that “are maritime dedicated to address the many maritime borders that we have.”

The many maritime borders include the coastal areas of South and Central America where the drug flows move in and out of the transit zones. Leaders of Columbia, Costa Rica and Panama have all said they want more U.S. Coast Guard off their coasts, Zukunft said.

“The demand signal is pretty high just in this hemisphere alone,” Zukunft said. The time is “long overdue” for the service to have its own long-range UAS, he said.

Zukunft said the land-based UAS could be based in El Salvador, where the U.S. has access.

Zukunft also pointed out that U.S. Southern Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Caribbean, the waters adjacent to Central and South America, and the land mass of Latin America below Mexico, relies heavily on the Coast Guard for its naval assets. SOUTHCOM Commander Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd “is going to be the low man on the totem pole when it comes to comes to gaining resources for land-based UAS,” Zukunft said, part of his argument for why the Coast Guard needs this as an organic capability.

Zukunft said a UAS like Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Global Hawk is probably more capability than the Coast Guard would need. The U.S. Air Force operates the Global Hawk. Zukunft said the Coast Guard is looking to leverage either a Defense Department or Department of Homeland Security UAS program for its land-based system.