The U.S. Coast Guard is trying to keep its procurement options open, in anticipation
of steep price tags for new aircraft and possible changes in its homeland-security
missions. Specifically, the Coast Guard is concerned about making long-term
commitments for purchases of unmanned aerial vehicles that it may not be able
Under the so-called Integrated Deepwater Systems modernization program, the
Coast Guard will replace aging cutters, fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft.
UAVs potentially would take over many of the functions performed today by piloted
But the rising cost of unmanned aircraft and the reluctance of the Federal
Aviation Administration to allow them to fly in restricted national airspace
are putting a damper on the Coast Guard’s plan to allow UAVs to conduct
port security and other coastal-area missions, officials said.
The Deepwater project is expected to command up to $20 billion during the next
two decades. But that may not be enough to afford the $30 million-plus UAVs
that the Defense Department is buying today. The two Deepwater prime contractors—Lockheed
Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp.—are responsible for conducting competitions
for different pieces of the program, in order to secure lower prices for the
A case in point is the Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance UAV, currently
operated by the U.S. Air Force. The Coast Guard would like to purchase Global
Hawks in 2016, but at the current price of more than $35 million each (or more,
depending on the sensors), it may be too expensive, said Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman,
the program executive officer for Deepwater. Ideally, the Coast Guard would
like to deploy one UAV and one helicopter on each cutter, he said.
For that reason, the Coast Guard wants to open up the competition in the program
to more vendors, Stillman told a conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle
Systems. “We need a broad playing field,” Stillman said. It will
be up to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to make that happen, he noted.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard agreed to purchase up to 69 vertical takeoff UAVs
from Bell Helicopter Textron, a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin in the Deepwater
program. The contract could be worth up to $1 billion, said a Bell news release.
The Eagle Eye UAV is a tilt rotor aircraft, like the V-22 Osprey, which moves
its propellers from a horizontal to a vertical position in order to achieve
a helicopter-like takeoff and landing.
Designed in the early 1990s, the Eagle Eye was intended for naval gunfire support,
battle damage assessment, over-the-horizon targeting, communications, data relay
and electronic counter measures. The manufacturer says Eagle Eye can remain
on station for up to three hours to transmit real- time day and night imagery.
Under the agreement with the Coast Guard, deliveries would begin in 2006 and
continue through 2018.
Some critics question whether the Eagle Eye is the right choice for the Coast
Guard’s close-to-the-port security missions, where ships have small decks—which
may not be able to accommodate the 15-foot Eagle Eye wingspan.
The concerns about Eagle Eye being “too much airplane for port surveillance”
are legitimate, even though the Coast Guard is committed to buying the aircraft,
Stillman said. Further, the apprehension about the size of Eagle Eye is symptomatic
of a larger “brand problem” in the Deepwater program.
The Deepwater label may be a misnomer, said Stillman. “A large part of
this system is tied to the coastal community, within 50 miles from the beach.”
Specifically for the port surveillance mission, “Is Eagle Eye the right
aircraft?” he asked rhetorically. “In part it is; in part it may
In an interview, Stillman said the Coast Guard is not discounting the possibility
of buying the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which Northrop Grumman developed
for the Navy and Marine Corps and the Navy subsequently cancelled.
Northrop Grumman is marketing the Fire Scout under a new name, the Sea Scout,
to make it more attractive to the Coast Guard and to position it as a possible
candidate to operate from the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, to be built
in 2005. The Coast Guard is eyeing the LCS as a possible option to replace its
medium-size patrol cutters.
“If there are problems with Eagle Eye, conceivably we would look at Fire
Scout,” Stillman said. “But Eagle Eye is the right aircraft for
us right now.”
Regardless of which UAV it buys, the Coast Guard won’t be able to fly
any UAVs near the coast, unless air space coordination issues are ironed out
with the FAA. This potentially could derail any efforts to deploy UAVs in the
future, Stillman said. The FAA wants UAVs to be able to safely operate with
other traffic. But the agency has been slow is specifying its requirements and
setting clear goals, he said. “The FAA has to define the way ahead,”
said Stillman. “A lot of work needs to be done. ... The goal is to have
this resolved by 2006.”
Other types of unmanned vehicles, such as submersibles and surface boats, could
be useful for the Coast Guard, but the service is unlikely to be able to afford
them, unless they are commercial off-the-shelf technologies, officials said.
For port surveillance, particularly, small unmanned vehicles are desirable,
Stillman said. “In the long term, I hope the Department of Homeland Security
perceives this technology as the way ahead, if we truly want surveillance in
the coastal areas.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security plans to create a technology
development office, called the Homeland Security Advanced Research Program,
which would operate much like the Pentagon’s DARPA.
This agency is expected to receive $500 million over the next five years, of
which no less than 10 percent is supposed to go the Coast Guard, according to
congressional language. Last year, the Coast Guard had a $22 million budget
for research and development.
“Money is a big issue,” said Rich Hansen, a Coast Guard research
and development manager. As the Coast Guard begins to integrate with other agencies
within the mammoth the Department of Homeland Security, he said, “We are
going on the assumption that we are cash poor.”