Why the Coast Guard Lags When It Comes to Unmanned Systems

By Stew Magnuson

Coast Guard photos

It’s 2006, and the scene is a nondescript office building near the Navy Yard in Southwest Washington, D.C.


The Coast Guard’s Integrated Deepwater System was still a thing at the time. The two prime contractors partnering on the 25-year project to modernize Coast Guard platforms — Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — had taken over a floor in the office building a few blocks south of the Capitol building and set up flashy looking displays to show members of Congress, their staffers and reporters like me about all the upgrades and new-build ships and aircraft in store for the service.


It was there I learned about the Eagle Eye, a tiltrotor unmanned aerial vehicle being developed by Bell Helicopter to fly off the yet to be built National Security Cutters. 


The executive in charge of giving the tour explained how such a UAV could be a big advantage for the Coast Guard and its myriad missions. Coast Guard helicopters flying a search pattern could cover about 9,000 nautical square miles over a span of 24 hours as opposed to an Eagle Eye, which could extend that to 56,000 nautical square miles and do so at a much lower operating cost.


The plan was to acquire 45 Eagle Eyes over the course of the 25-year program, but it was not to be.


The Northrop-Lockheed team got fired for performing poorly on the program — particularly on the fast response cutters — and the Coast Guard eventually took over management with all the ships and helicopter programs intact — but without the Deepwater name and without the Eagle Eye.


Although Bell had begun developing the aircraft at its own expense in the early 1990s before finding a customer at Deepwater, that was still five years of development and $113.7 million charged to the service.


Flashforward some 17 years later to May 2023. The Coast Guard released an “Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan” — a forward-looking document that explains all the goodness that could come out of the service’s increased use of uncrewed aerial, surface, subsurface and space systems.


Of that, there can be no doubt. Almost two decades after their widespread adoption in modern battlefields, the utility of robotic systems is well known and hardly needs to be repeated in the pages of this magazine.


Like most roadmaps, the document has a short “history” section — a chart called “Timeline of Research And Development And Capabilities” on page 12.


The first entry on the chart is 2007 when Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection began jointly flying a marinized Predator drone called the Sea Guardian in the Caribbean.


The second entry was 2009 when the Coast Guard began experimenting with the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.


Wait! What happened to the Eagle Eye? It is not mentioned. The history of Coast Guard unmanned aerial vehicle R&D began in 2007, according to this chart.


Where is it? Sitting collecting dust in Amarillo or Fort Worth, I imagine.


But what is the real story? The Eagle Eye had one crash — while in development — but so what? That’s par for the course in R&D.


Insiders told National Defense at the time that it was all about the budget. While UAVs throughout the decade were proving their worth day in and day out in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers apparently didn’t believe the Coast Guard had an urgent need for them.


They were intended for National Security Cutters, and they had yet to sail. The Federal Aviation Administration hadn’t sorted out the rules for flying drones in the National Airspace near shorelines. True and true.


But the National Security Cutters did eventually set sail. And the FAA worked out the rules and regulations. Bell executives at the time said the Eagle Eye was at a high technology readiness level and they were ready to flip the switch back on the program anytime. But that never happened.


Today, the Coast Guard flies ScanEagle drones off its ships — a very capable and no-doubt useful tool. But as far as range and endurance, it’s not what the Eagle Eye could have been.


The 9,000 vs. 56,000-sqaure-mile statistic quoted earlier was most likely a bit of marketing, but the reader should get the point after years of comparing manned versus unmanned operations. Who knows how many lives could have been saved, billions of dollars of illicit drugs seized, illegal fishing boats spotted while employing a medium-range, long-endurance drone being organically flown off the cutters, especially with today’s high-fidelity sensors?


But here is where I confess that this article is not really about the Eagle Eye. Sorry to say that it was all a bit of misdirection, because this article is really about one of the nation’s greatest but chronically underfunded assets: the United States Coast Guard.


National Defense since the Eagle Eye’s cancellation has written dozens of articles about the service’s effort to deploy UAVs. Over and over again, the only reason cited for the Coast Guard being the “have-not” of the services when it comes to drones was funding.


And for those who follow the yearly budget battles, this is hardly surprising. We have also written dozens of articles about the Coast Guard getting the short shrift on other programs.


Despite the Eagle Eye’s glaring omission, the “Coast Guard Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan” is a solid document that spells out all the important missions that can be carried out by not only unmanned aerial vehicles, but by subsurface, surface and even ground robots.


The return on investment for Americans would be well worth it in lives saved alone.


Now, all the service needs is adequate funding to make this vision come true. ND


Topics: Aviation

Comments (2)

Re: Why the Coast Guard Lags When It Comes to Unmanned Systems

Well, here is the opportunity for the word salad commandant that has espoused countless speeches and statements of new ways and technology and we must work smarter etc. to show she stands behind what she says. Looks like more words and no action on things that matter, just more woke policies.
Just like the administration in the white house!

BAzil Brush at 6:46 AM
Re: Why the Coast Guard Lags When It Comes to Unmanned Systems

Marketing data even almost 20 years later can still be misleading and embellished. The underlying design data did not support a mission endurance beyond 5 to 6 hours. When paired with the independent cost analyses, the system just did not provide enough capability for the cost. Now 20 years later, if a tiltrotor/tiltwing design was a cost effective solution for these missions I believe you would see one being offered by a serious aviation supplier.

Wayne at 6:46 AM
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