U.S. Strategic Command has found new homeland security missions for the Cold War era B-52H Stratofortress.
The bombers, many of which are now nearly 50 years old, have flown a “number of missions” to snap pictures of suspicious ships approaching U.S. waters, said Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., who leads the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Base, La., and the global strike joint functional component at U.S. Strategic Command.
“The Navy gives us a ship to locate based on a signature and we’ve gone out about 1,000 nautical miles from the coast … to take a picture and ship it back,” he told reporters in Washington.
Identifying U.S.-bound ships farther out to sea has been a long-time goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard.
The B-52 also saw action in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike last year when Predator unmanned aerial vehicles were grounded due to bad weather. A B-52 surveyed the damage in about four hours, he said.
“Right now we’re moving toward where every platform is a sensor,” Elder said. For example, every jet fighter carrying an electro-optical pod can take a picture and transmit it back to a command center.
This comes as the Coast Guard has been working toward a system that can track vessels from near shore to distances of 2,000 nautical miles out to sea.
Its efforts have faced some delays, and there is a chance that the multiple systems being employed will duplicate each other’s data and create waste, a Government Accountability Office report found.
“While a certain amount of redundancy can be beneficial if it occurs by design, our previous work has found that unintended duplication indicates the potential for inefficiency and waste,” the unclassified version of the report said.
There are four main systems being used or in the works. The automated identification system requires that vessels entering U.S. coastal waters within 50 nautical miles transmit data such as identification, speed and course. Long-range AIS, which will not be available until about 2014, is designed to work at distances of 2,000 nautical miles.
The international long-range identification and tracking system (LRIT) will rely on existing onboard radio equipment currently used to transmit identity and locations to rescue forces in case of emergency. Some countries, but not all, are ready to participate in this system.
GAO was most concerned about long-range AIS and LRIT being duplicative.
Another way to identify and track ships is what GAO calls “national technical means” — a government euphemism for spy satellites or other secret sensors.
There are many holes in this multi-layered approach, GAO pointed out. First, AIS and the other transponder-based systems depend upon the good will of the ship’s captain. If it isn’t turned on, there will be no way to identify the vessel. And only ships of 300 gross tonnage or more are required to carry such systems. There is no requirement for small vessels.
A top secret sensor platform could track a small vessel, or one with its AIS switched off, approaching U.S. shores, but “the classified tracking information cannot be passed to staff of other agencies without proper clearance.”
The Department of Homeland Security in response to the report said long-range AIS and LRIT are two complementary systems with different sets of data being drawn from different classes of vessels. They are being developed under separate international agreements and statutes, it added.
GAO countered that other widely available data, such as routine ship filings, combined with one of the two systems would make it wasteful, and that the vessels sizes were similar. Also, the Coast Guard was not required under any law to use long-range AIS.