Unmanned systems can help the Coast Guard carry out a number of its missions but so far, the service hasn’t shown the necessary commitment to developing and acquiring these technologies to the degree it should, according to a new report by National Academies of Sciences.
The report, which was requested by Congress, says the Coast Guard needs to be more aggressive, strategic and deliberate in acquiring unmanned systems (UxSs) as force multipliers for an increasingly demanding mission set.
“A major realignment of the Coast Guard’s UxS approach is warranted,” says the 198-page consensus study report, Leveraging Unmanned Systems for Coast Guard Missions: A Strategic Imperative. It points out the current wide-ranging use of UxS across the public and private sectors and highlights the opportunities for the Coast Guard, including for joint operations with military and other Department of Homeland Security agencies.
“Indeed, the study committee concludes that to remain responsive and fully relevant to its many missions, it is imperative that the Coast Guard take a more strategic and accelerated approach to exploit the capabilities of existing and future unmanned systems,” says the report, which was released on Thursday.
The Coast Guard currently operates with ScanEagle unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) aboard six of its high-endurance National Security Cutters and by next March expects to have two more ships equipped with the small drones. Congress has provided funding for 11 NSCs, nine of which have been delivered.
The ScanEagle system is provided by Boeing’s [BA] Insitu unit and is widely used by the U.S. Navy.
The Coast Guard has also evaluated the use of small UAS aboard one of its polar icebreakers and recently tested small autonomous surface vessels off the coast of Hawaii for persistent maritime surveillance in remote ocean areas. The service is also acquiring a fleet of 25 medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutters that it wants to eventually equip with small UAS and it has studied the potential for long-range UAS that could patrol the drug transit zones.
The study says the Coast Guard should “expand and normalize” this experimentation with low-cost UxSs.
However, the Coast Guard hasn’t shown the steady commitment it needs to make UxS a standard feature of its portfolio of capabilities, the report says.
“The service is currently sponsoring multiple initiatives to assess the applicability of UxSs to these mission areas and to introduce their capabilities into the fleet and force structure,” the study says. “To date, however, the initiatives have been characterized by limited funding spread over many years and the absence of formal means, or a pacing mechanism, or proactively identifying, investigating, and integrating promising systems.”
In fiscal year 2020, Congress provided $9.4 million for the Coast Guard’s small UAS program, but the service only requested $600,000 in FY ’21.
These funding amounts don’t cut it, according to the report.
“While the committee is not in a position to estimate and advise on how much additional funding will be required, a detailed assessment of investment needs is not required to conclude that a $5 million per year R&D program and budget line items of a few million dollars more per year for acquisitions and deployments of off-the-shelf UxS technologies is clearly insufficient,” it says.
The report champions the need for a UxS strategy by the Coast Guard to lay out its goals for these systems, how they fit into the different mission sets, and how to achieve the goals. It also recommends that the Coast Guard Commandant direct an internal study on the funding required to implement the UxS strategy. It also suggests that the service doesn’t have to go it alone.
“Given the Coast Guard’s need to be opportunistic and enterprising in leveraging other organizations’ technologies, the study should consider the likely advances in UxS capabilities and affordability, as well as strategic partnerships with other services and federal agencies, to enable cost-saving economies of scale,” the report says. “The study should also recognize that investments in UxSs may not be accompanied by opportunities to significantly reduce spending on manned assets and operations, but will nevertheless be vital to supporting efficient and capable hybrid operations to fulfill the Coast Guard’s critical missions.”
Two other recommendations in the report are designating a “UxS champion” within the Coast Guard to advocate for the new strategy and the standup of a new UxS program office to work with the “champion” to leverage existing capabilities outside the service and to promote UxS activities across the service.
The report recommends that the program office create a “roadmap that translates the high-level UxS strategic goals and objectives into an actionable plan to accomplish them, which should specify tasks needing priority attention, time frames for completion, and performance metrics and milestones.”