Coast Guard Pursuing Ambitious ‘Tech Revolution’
Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Faced with outdated information technology and the growing threat of network attacks, the Coast Guard is steaming ahead with a new plan aimed at revolutionizing its cybersecurity and data management capabilities.
The sea service is currently using 1990s-era hardware and software that needs to be updated to keep up with current threats, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
Last summer, over 95 vital systems went offline for several days due to a server malfunction, preventing servicemembers from performing basic tasks, he said during his annual State of the Coast Guard Address in Charleston, South Carolina. The sea service needs to bring its IT equipment up to industry standards.
“We need a tech revolution, a whole-of-service effort to empower our people with an information system that is reliable, mobile and integrated,” he said.
“In an era where data generates more revenue than oil, it is crucial that the Coast Guard modernizes its data management to help build and sustain its future force,” he added.
“Years of investment tradeoffs have brought our information technology to the brink of catastrophic failure. ... Our people will never fail our country, but our technology is failing our people.”
The modernization blueprint, called the Tech Revolution Road Map, seeks to bring the service’s information technology apparatus into the 21st century by taking steps such as putting IT equipment onto a standard industry replacement cycle. Schultz said this would reduce the risk of future critical failures and address the long-term problem of deferred maintenance.
Some mid- to long-term goals for the next two to three years include: implementing next-generation commercial satellite communications; enhancing network security and modernizing cyber defense tools; and implementing electronic health records, according to a fact sheet released by the service.
They also include expanding cyber incident responses, implementing next-generation commercial satellite communications, and recapitalizing high frequency/very high frequency radios.
Additionally, the service wants to create electronic official military personnel files, pilot artificial intelligence/robotic process automation and replace its learning management system.
In the next year, the Coast Guard hopes to promote its data strategy, increase its internet speed for cloud access, upgrade to 4G connectivity, increase its coverage area and double the connectivity of its cutters.
The modernization plan outlined in the blueprint is divided into five topic areas: cutter connectivity; C5I infrastructure; cyber readiness; software, mobility and cloud; and data for decisions.
The Coast Guard was slated to transition to Microsoft Office 365 this spring to increase email reliability. Plans also include making internet speeds 50 times faster this year and improving ship connectivity over the next three years, Schultz noted.
The Coast Guard’s servers now run at about 95 percent capacity, which causes them to go offline at times, said Master Chief Petty Officer Jason Vanderhaden, the service’s senior enlisted member and principal advisor to the commandant on all enlisted personnel matters. Pushing information to a cloud server will help alleviate these problems, he told National Defense.
The service also plans on obtaining better hardware to improve ship connectivity and communications, Schultz said, noting that today’s computer systems are too slow. When at sea, servicemembers have to wait for a long period of time for computers to buffer.
“We’re trying to speed up some connectivity for our ships to make it easier for our people to do business at sea,” he said.
Immediate plans also include deploying AUXDATA, a cloud-based system that will help manage the service’s auxiliary force, which is the civilian component of the Coast Guard.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are also expected to play a big role in these initiatives, Vanderhaden noted. These technologies can make it easier for the service to process large amounts of intelligence quickly, he said.
“We get a lot of intelligence, and being able to process that intelligence is difficult,” he said. “We’re looking at how can we incorporate AI and machine learning to make us more effective in our law enforcement ability?”
The Coast Guard also wants more mobile systems and is looking into ways to incorporate tablets and other devices into its operations, Vanderhaden said. For example, such technology could assist in recruiting efforts.
“Our folks right now, oftentimes they have to carry manuals in their backpacks,” he said. “We’re trying to go mobile there. … Anything that we might do where mobility would be better or more useful, we’re trying to go with mobile apps.”
Additionally, the service is pushing to improve its cyber capabilities to protect the nation from hostile actors, Schultz noted. In the past year, the Coast Guard’s new cyber protection team has assisted in eight intergovernmental responses to malicious attacks, he said. These occurred in multiple cities such as New York and New Orleans.
Defending against adversaries will require a revamp of the service’s 2015 cyber strategy, which focused on protecting critical infrastructure and helped guide the Coast Guard’s responses to network intrusions. The service hopes to release a new document detailing its plans this summer or early fall.
“That cyber domain is changing so fast that I’ve challenged the team to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a refresh,’” Schultz said. “We were building out some of our organic capabilities.”
However, the Coast Guard isn’t just looking to play defense, he noted. It wants to conduct its own cyber attacks against adversaries.
“There is interest in, ‘Hey, what can you do in terms of operational effect for offensive cyber capabilities? Could we bring cyber as an effect against transnational criminals smuggling drugs or other things?’” he asked. “There is an increasing portfolio and we’re updating our strategy because the world has changed that much in the last five years.
We’re building out our cyber mission force.”
President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request calls for adding 179 cyber personnel to the Coast Guard’s existing force, Schultz noted. The service currently has about 360 cyber personnel, and about 50 or 60 are coming on board this year.
The request includes $32.7 million for cybersecurity needs, according to Department of Homeland Security budget documents. It also asks for $34.8 million for C4ISR, information technology and cyber systems.
The Coast Guard falls under DHS but is also an armed service. The sea service’s ties with both the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department put it in a unique position, Schultz noted. It must operate on both the Pentagon’s information network as well as law enforcement technology such as supervisory control and data acquisition systems.
Vanderhaden said the service is looking at its law enforcement authorities provided by DHS to understand how it can leverage and mitigate cyber threats.
“Our cyber strategy is being updated because the Department of Homeland Security and our relationship with the Department of Defense is improving and enhancing,” he said.
The service is gaining a better understanding of the threat, he added.
Updated IT systems will also assist the Coast Guard in its personnel practices, Vanderhaden said. For instance, the service could use data analytics to improve retention efforts by examining why people choose to stay in the military.
“We’re trying to create good diversity [and understand] our personnel trends,” he said. “Data analytics is going to be really big for us going forward so that we can understand why people are staying and why they go. And that has to do with technology and being able to leverage technology to help us understand how our people are feeling.”
To better connect with academia and industry, the service created the Blue Technology Center of Expertise in San Diego, Schultz said. The facility opened its doors in January with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The effort will focus on “blue technology,” which encompasses maritime systems above and below the water for Coast Guard use in operations such as search and rescue, marine inspections and investigations. The service received authorization for the facility with the 2018 Save Our Seas Act, according to a news release.
“This center will create a unique pipeline for the rapid implementation of new maritime technologies into Coast Guard operations around the globe,” Schultz said.
Additionally, this summer the service plans on assigning personnel to the Defense Innovation Unit in Silicon Valley to work on capabilities that can help with homeland security problems, he noted. DIU was created in 2015 by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to try to bridge the gap between the Pentagon and the nation’s civilian tech hubs.
However, the service needs more money to implement these modernization plans. Fiscal year 2020 is the first year the Coast Guard has received funding for the Tech Revolution Roadmap initiative, Vanderhaden said. It is taking a multi-phased approach that will involve upgrading its hardware, software and processes, he noted.
“This year we actually got funding in the budget to be able to work on some [command, control, communications, computers/information technology] enhancements,” he said.
“We’re replacing a lot of our hardware infrastructure.”
Schultz noted that the Coast Guard has a $300 million shortfall for its IT needs and continuing these technology efforts will require additional funding.
“Closing our existing $300 million annual IT shortfall is an important step to modernizing the Coast Guard’s technology landscape,” he said. “While we’ve developed this new road map to [reach] a more technologically advanced and effective Coast Guard, we need an injection of funding now.”