COVID-19 NEWS: Coronavirus Crisis Highlights Coast Guard’s IT Woes

By Jon Harper

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The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the need for the Coast Guard to modernize its information technology, the service’s commandant said April 13.

In recent months, Adm. Karl Schultz has been banging the drum about how his force is still equipped with 20th century IT equipment. Now, Coast Guardsmen are faced with a global health crisis. Thousands are teleworking to maintain social distancing, while tens of thousands are still out on the front lines performing their missions, Schultz noted.

“This just validates the urgency” of recapitalizing the sea service’s IT infrastructure, he said during remarks at the Navy’s League’s Sea-Air-Space conference, which is being held virtually this year because of safety concerns surrounding COVID-19.

“We’re making some immediate expenditures because we’ve got a little more latitude right now to attenuate that, but this is really exacerbating or showing just how critical this C5I [command, control, communications, computers, cyber and intelligence] … is for an organization like the Coast Guard,” he added.

Preserving readiness and the health of the workforce is a top concern right now as the nation and the Coast Guard grapple with the challenges created by the virus.

Mission focus areas include facilitating maritime transportation — which includes the nation’s 355 sea ports and 25,000 miles of waterways where commerce flows— as well as search-and-rescue and counter-drug operations, he noted.

“Coast Guard missions continue across the globe,” Schultz said. “Obviously they’ve been scoped a little bit here in light of the COVID-19 challenge.”

The maritime first responder organization has been facing threats posed by the virus, he noted. Cruise ships — potential disease hot spots — have been offloading passengers at U.S. ports, he noted. Additionally, there are currently 75 to 100 ships operating in proximity to U.S. shores with about 100,000 crew on board.

“In the current crisis situation where I’ve got a workforce disaggregated all over the country here to responsibly social distance, physically distance, … that mobility [facilitated by C5I] is all that more important,” Schultz said. “The current crisis allows us to speak to that with some different metrics, some different urgency.”

The sea service needs a tech revolution, he said. That includes bringing IT up to today’s industry standards and moving into cloud computing.

However, modernizing information technology will require additional investment as the service also acquires new vessels and aircraft and tries to improve on its maintenance backlog.

The Coast Guard — which is part of the Department of Homeland Security — has historically struggled to receive the modernization funding it says it needs compared with the other armed services, which fall under the Defense Department. It has missed out on budget plus-ups that the Pentagon was given in recent years, he noted.

“We have to make our business case inside the [Trump] administration. We have to go to the Hill and talk to external audiences about why these things are important,” Schultz said. “Clearly there’s a money piece to this.”

The service would be better served by buying new equipment instead of patching and layering in more complexity onto older systems, he added. “Hopefully … we can make the business case and folks want to get behind us and support that in the annual budget process.”

Potential disruptions and delays to acquisition projects have been a major concern for Pentagon leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. Schultz discussed some of the Coast Guard’s modernization programs, but did not identify any that have been impacted by the novel coronavirus.

However, he did say the pandemic could impact strategic planning for the sea services.

“Writ large we’re working with our other sea service partners, with the [chief of naval operations] and the commandant of the Marine Corps on a comprehensive strategy for the three services,” Schultz said. That work was expected to be completed this summer.

“I suspect that the ongoing national health [and] global health crisis probably pushes that right,” he said. “But we’re very much in the shaping and framing that conversation about how the nation’s sea services go forward.”

Topics: Cyber, Technical Information

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