The Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 called for this study of the U.S. Coast Guard’s existing and prospective use of unmanned systems (UxSs) to fulfill its many critical and often unique missions. The act implies an interest in a range of technology-based concepts, from aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles that have no human occupants or controllers to vehicles that may have a crew but have some level of remote, automated, or autonomous control, as well as systems that are not vehicles such as intelligent decision aids. The request for this study calls for a review of the current and emerging capabilities of these systems; their affordability, reliability, and versatility; and any realignments in Coast Guard policies, procedures, and protocols that may be necessary to exploit them more fully and effectively.
As one of the country’s six military services, the Coast Guard also serves as a first responder, law enforcement agency, maritime regulator, and member of the intelligence community. The Service is currently sponsoring multiple initiatives to assess the applicability of UxSs to these mission areas and to introduce their capabilities into the fleet and force structure. To date, however, the initiatives have been characterized by limited funding spread over many years and the absence of a formal means, or a pacing mechanism, for proactively identifying, investigating, and integrating promising systems. In the meantime, technological advancements in UxSs continue to accelerate, driven by commercial and military demands and interests.
A major realignment of the Coast Guard’s UxS approach is warranted. After reviewing the Coast Guard’s many important, complex, varied, and demanding missions; observing that its fleet and operational forces are
being increasingly taxed; finding that a variety of UxSs are being used today with high utility across the public and private sectors; and knowing that the technologies that enable and underpin these systems are rapidly advancing, the committee is struck by the magnitude and breadth of opportunity that lies ahead for the Coast Guard to pursue UxSs across its multiple operational domains and missions. As other military services and other operational agencies of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) integrate UxSs into their force structures, the Coast Guard will be impelled to do the same, because it engages in joint and combined operations and missions with these partners.
Abundant evidence in this report points to both a compelling need and burgeoning opportunities for the Coast Guard to proceed more aggressively, albeit strategically and deliberately, in leveraging UxS advancements. Indeed, the study committee concludes that to remain responsive and fully relevant to its many missions, it is imperative that the Coast Guard take a more strategic and accelerated approach to exploit the capabilities of existing and future unmanned systems.
The Coast Guard has expressed a keen interest in exploiting UxSs for a range of missions and with growing levels of sophistication and scale. That interest, however, is not matched by a funding commitment, including critical funding for research and development (R&D). The Coast Guard’s R&D spending is modest when compared to R&D spending by other military and DHS operational agencies, and is negligible in the context of the UxS imperative. The committee concludes that the Coast Guard’s small current budget for UxS R&D and incremental applications is not sufficient to meet the UxS imperative and therefore will need augmentation by Congress and DHS to enable more and larger-scale investigations and investments. In the committee’s view, the Coast Guard’s investments in UxS should be made with the explicit aim of introducing new and improved capabilities to fulfill the Service’s missions, and not simply as cost-saving substitutes for traditional manned assets and operations.
How best to proceed in realigning plans, operations, budgets, and policies to prompt and enable the Coast Guard to embrace and capitalize on UxSs is a question that faces its leadership, DHS, and Congress. Similar to the experiences of other military services, DHS operational units, and several other federal agencies, the Coast Guard has reached a point where purposeful and strategic actions are needed. Informed by these experiences, the committee recommends the following five steps.
ISSUE A HIGH-LEVEL UxS STRATEGY
The Commandant should issue a high-level UxS strategy that articulates a compelling rationale for UxSs, sets forth agency-critical goals that these
systems should further, and outlines the Coast Guard’s approach for achieving them. The Commandant has issued several other strategic documents to bring service-wide attention to critical needs and interests. The strategies are intended to convey urgency to senior leadership and to galvanize changes needed across the organization, from shifting budget priorities and adjusting acquisition policies to investing in supportive R&D and personnel recruitment and training. It is time, in the committee’s view, for Coast Guard leadership to do the same for UxSs by articulating a vision for the use of these systems across mission areas, setting strategic goals and objectives for achieving that vision, and establishing appropriate organizational structures and lines of authority to introduce and integrate UxSs across the force structure.
DESIGNATE A SENIOR UxS CHAMPION
The Coast Guard is small when compared to other military services, but it is nevertheless a large organization with a complex—and in places stove-piped—bureaucratic structure. Although the Commandant’s strategic commitment to UxSs can go a long way to spurring the institutional responsiveness required to carry the strategy out, the scope and scale of the responses that will be required should not be underestimated. Accordingly, the Commandant should designate a top Coast Guard official, at the Flag Officer or Senior Executive Service levels, to advocate for and advance the Service’s UxS strategy. This top official should be responsible for identifying, promoting, pushing for, coordinating, and facilitating the changes that will be needed across the organization to further the Commandant’s strategic goals and objectives for UxSs.
STAND UP A UxS PROGRAM OFFICE
Given the many changes in Coast Guard priorities, practices, and procedures that will be required to more fully exploit UxSs—from systems acquisition to personnel hiring and training—no single directorate or subunit could be expected to initiate and implement them all. However, a dedicated program office, in concert with a high-level UxS advocate, could play a vital leadership and coordinating role in sustaining and expanding the use of UxSs across Coast Guard operational forces. Such a program office would be charged with fostering an organizational environment—administratively, culturally, and operationally—in which the Coast Guard is not only ready, willing, and able to leverage UxS technologies, but also enterprising and opportunistic in exploiting their promise.
Underscoring the importance of such an environment for the future Coast Guard, the Commandant should establish a UxS program office
that will work in concert with the top official charged with advancing the Service’s UxS strategy to plan out, coordinate, assess, and promote UxS activities across the Service and to leverage relevant activities and capabilities from outside the Service. An early initiative of the program office should be to develop a “roadmap” that translates the high-level UxS strategic goals and objectives into an actionable plan to accomplish them, which should specify tasks needing priority attention, time frames for completion, and performance metrics and milestones.
EXPAND AND NORMALIZE UxS EXPERIMENTATION
As documented in this report, the Coast Guard is experimenting with UxS capabilities on a limited basis, often in partnership with other military services and DHS agencies. In the committee’s view, such experimentation is vital to expanding and transitioning UxSs across the Coast Guard and is highly compatible with the Coast Guard’s well known “can do” attitude and spirit of innovation to meet its diverse and demanding missions in the face of resource constraints. Budgetary limits are an important factor in the Coast Guard’s need to be a “fast follower” that leverages and adapts technologies developed by others. Therefore, the Coast Guard must be attuned to, and experiment with, technology developments elsewhere in the military and government and in the commercial sector.
To build on and reinforce its naturally innovative culture, the Coast Guard should expand and normalize efforts to ensure ample and systematic operations-related experimentation with low-cost UxSs, including potentially designating field units specifically for experimentation and rapid transitioning of systems into operations. Encouraging experimentation with low-cost UxS technologies will not only help to identify beneficial uses, but also nurture a technology-curious and -proficient workforce across the ranks. The Coast Guard should aim to spur interest in, and create opportunities for, experimentation across operational units with an aggressiveness that is at least commensurate with the general pace of development and proliferation of UxS technologies.
GET A FIX ON UxS FUNDING NEEDS
The committee’s recommendations are intended to expand and accelerate Coast Guard investigation and implementation of UxSs that can lead to new concepts of operation. Acting on these recommendations, however, will require ample and sustained funding, and a commitment to continually increasing funding over time. While the committee is not in a position to estimate and advise on how much additional funding will be required, a detailed assessment of investment needs is not required to conclude that
a $5 million per year R&D program and budget line items of a few million dollars more per year for acquisitions and deployments of off-the-shelf UxS technologies is clearly insufficient.
As it identifies UxSs for incorporation into the fleet and force structure, the Coast Guard will need to invest in R&D, acquisitions, field experimentation, strategic planning, systems integration, evaluation, cybersecurity, legal analyses, personnel recruitment and training, and many other field and mission support functions and requirements. The sooner the Coast Guard estimates the magnitude of required investments, the sooner it can press for additional resources to meet them. Thus, to get a fix on the magnitude of investments that will be required, the Commandant should commission an internal study of the multi-year spending that will be required for research, assets, integration, personnel, and the like that will enable full and sustained implementation of a UxS strategy. Given the Coast Guard’s need to be opportunistic and enterprising in leveraging other organizations’ technologies, the study should consider the likely advances in UxS capabilities and affordability, as well as strategic partnerships with other services and federal agencies, to enable cost-saving economies of scale. The study should also recognize that investments in UxSs may not be accompanied by opportunities to significantly reduce spending on manned assets and operations, but will nevertheless be vital to supporting efficient and capable hybrid operations to fulfill the Coast Guard’s critical missions.
The recommendations in this report are directed to the Coast Guard and its leadership. The committee is fully aware, of course, that the request for this study originated in legislation and that Congress has a keen interest in the Coast Guard’s ability to effectively and efficiently perform its many missions critical to the nation. DHS has the same interest. Funding needs for UxSs, as established in the recommended Coast Guard study, will unlikely be met through reallocations of traditional Coast Guard appropriations and budget items. Although it is incumbent on the Coast Guard to build a compelling case for substantial additional funding, the committee believes its findings and recommendations warrant the attention of Congress and DHS, whose support will be vital to the advent of a future Coast Guard that fully embraces and delivers on the promise of UxSs.
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