The Coast Guard’s unmanned aerial vehicle program has yet to get off the ground.
Last year, plans were halted to acquire a vertical-takeoff UAV, called Eagle Eye. At the time, officials said the project had to be cancelled for financial reasons. Now the Coast Guard intends to wait until 2010 to decide what aircraft it may buy.
At a time when military UAV orders are ramping up, the Coast Guard has decided to take a more cautious approach. Experts speculate that the Coast Guard’s future UAV purchases will follow the Navy’s direction.
The Coast Guard hinted last year that it may buy the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which the Navy plans to acquire as a surveillance asset that will operate off the decks of the new littoral combat ship. The Army also is a Fire Scout customer. The Coast Guard continues to monitor what the Navy and the Army will do with the Fire Scout, said Larry Dickerson, aviation analyst at Forecast International.
For the Coast Guard, it would make sense to wait until the Navy completes the testing, flight trials and the development of the sensors before it can decide whether the aircraft meets its needs, Dickerson said.
The UAVs are part of the Integrated Deepwater Systems, a 25-year, $24 billion effort to modernize the Coast Guard’s aging ships, aircraft and communications systems.
Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, agreed that the Coast Guard is unlikely to commit to buying the Fire Scout until all tests and development are finalized. “They are basically watching the testing that the Navy will be doing on the Fire Scout in January,” he said.
Another reason why the Coast Guard’s UAV program is moving slowly is that the service has struggled to get the larger Deepwater project on track. The National Security Cutters, from which the UAVs would be launched, are behind schedule.
The Deepwater troubles prompted Congress to intervene and pass new legislation that prohibits the Coast Guard from using a private contractor as a “lead systems integrator” and gives the Coast Guard until October 2011 to assume the LSI role for all Deepwater assets. Previously, the LSI was a contractor team of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. The Coast Guard recently set up its own acquisition organization in-house and announced it will phase out the LSI.
Until the new ships are straightened out, said Dickerson, “the UAVs are kind of pointless to have. Its not like they’re in a huge rush … it’s not a pressing need.” But he noted that the Coast Guard is well aware of how much UAVs can help its mission.
The Coast Guard is now conducting a study to determine its UAV needs, which is slated for completion in 2010. Among the possible alternatives to the Eagle Eye are not only the Fire Scout, which is built by Northrop Grumman, but also the Hummingbird, which is a rotary-wing aircraft made by Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems.
The Coast Guard is considering all possibilities and not leaning toward a particular system, said Capt. John Macaluso, research and development program manager for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate.
If the Coast Guard chose the Fire Scout, it would be equipped with the Telephonics RDR-1700B search, surveillance, tracking and imaging radar system.
The maritime radar was part of the cancelled Eagle Eye UAV, but is not part of Army or Navy’s requirements for the aircraft, said Joe Emerson, program director of the Army Future Combat Systems Class IV UAV at Northrop Grumman.
Northrop Grumman tested and demonstrated the radar at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in September.
Next year, the contractor will spend its own funds to conduct a more realistic over-water search trial, and show Coast Guard officials its ability to fit on a National Security Cutter, Emerson said.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, is also moving ahead with plans to set up a joint program office with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to coordinate the use of maritime UAVs that could take off and land from Florida airports and fly missions in the Caribbean.
The service is interested in land-based UAVs, although there is no funding, Macaluso said. A combination of land and sea-based UAVs would work best, he added.
Through simulation and modeling, the Coast Guard found that UAVs improved surveillance effectiveness by 35 percent, Macaluso said. That led to an overall gain of 9 percent in the service’s ability to interdict such illegal activities as unlawful fishing and illegal border crossing.
UAVs significantly extend a cutter’s reach. While a conventional helicopter can cover about 9,000 nautical square miles, a UAV can push that to 56,000 nautical square miles and do so more cheaply.
Despite their usefulness, some question the Coast Guard’s need for UAVs at all.
James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the justification for having a separate Coast Guard UAV acquisition program from the Navy’s is unclear.
“I’m not saying there’s no need for UAVs in the Coast Guard,” he added. “I’m just saying that I’m not rock solid clear on what the operational concept is.”
The Coast Guard’s ongoing aviation programs, however, have been a bright spot in the troubled Deepwater effort.
The Coast Guard is currently upgrading all of its HH-65 Dolphin helicopters, which are being re-designated as multi-mission aircraft. They will each have an electro-optical sensor system. The main camera, a forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, detects the energy emitted by a person or object, such as a boat. It is particularly valuable at night or in foul weather, said Capt. Doug Menders, the Coast Guard’s acquisition program manager for aviation.
The HH-65C and HH-60 helicopters will be equipped with an infrared camera, a low light camera, a long-range color camera, a laser illuminator and an eye-safe laser range finder.
The HH-65 is gaining a new navigation system and the HH-60’s avionics system will be upgraded. Both will receive a new surface search radar to help detect smugglers or ships that are in distress, Menders said.
The Coast Guard is also installing a weapons package on the HH-60 and HH-65 helicopters. The kit includes night vision and cockpit displays, in addition to one M240 7.62mm machine gun and one RC50 .50 caliber precision rifle.
Spurred by high incidence of in-flight engine power losses, the Coast Guard imposed operational flight restrictions on its 95 HH-65B helicopters to maintain safety. Early in 2004, it began to re-engine its inventory and install new control systems as part of the Deepwater program’s conversion to the multi-mission cutter helicopter, or MCH. The re-engined aircraft configuration is referred to as the HH-65C.
The Coast Guard expects to have 102 of these helicopters by 2015. The service has been flying the MCH-65 on missions for about six months.
The MCH-65 has much improved sensors. “The EOIR that we’ve put on there is pretty much unmatched,” Menders said.
The old MH-68 Stingray helicopter was unable to hoist people from the ocean and therefore was limited to search operations. “You could fly around and search but that was about it,” Menders said. “But the HH-65 is a tried and true search-and-rescue aircraft.”
The HH-60 helicopter is receiving an avionics upgrade with new multi-function display screens, improved radar, and EOIR systems.
On the fixed-wing side, the Coast Guard is acquiring the HC-144A Ocean Sentry maritime patrol aircraft. Five are in service and three additional are on contract and scheduled for delivery by February 2009. Under the Deepwater program, the Coast Guard plans to buy 36 HC-144As by 2020. They will replace the service’s aging fleet of HU-25 Falcon jets. The HC-144A is a derivative of the EADS/CASA CN-235-300.
Its main functions include homeland security, search-and-rescue missions and enforcing treaties.
Another important part of Deepwater is to connect aircraft, cutters and key shore facilities to the Pentagon’s classified SIPRNET (secure Internet protocol router network). The Coast Guard in February obtained temporary authority to connect to the network, with permanent authority expected in the next six to eight months, Menders said.
Access to the SIPRNET was deemed necessary after the Coast Guard assumed a greater role in national defense and homeland security following the 9/11 attacks. So far, SIPRNET connectivity has been achieved for the HC-144A maritime patrol aircraft. The Defense Department’s network can provide the Coast Guard with information useful in thwarting illegal drug runners.