When it comes to tracking and stopping illegal activity like narcotics smuggling, the Coast Guard's surveillance capacity is so limited that it must rely on aircraft and drones from relies on drone surveillance from U.S. Customs and Borderard Protection. Most of these requests go unfilled, says a lawmaker who argues A lawmaker says it's past time the Coast Guard got its own drone fleet. to help track and stop illegal activity at sea, but limited assets mean they're often turned down for back-up — so a lawmaker is pushing to get the service their own fleet.
In a letter sent to CBP on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., requested numbers from the agency on how many times they've had to deniedy the Coast Guard's request for unmanned aerial surveillance assistance, to illustrate the service's need for an unmanned system of its own.
"This is by no means complicated," Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff, told Navy Times on Tuesday. "We can do this with two UASs, maybe more."
Currently, the Coast Guard and CBP work together for maritime interdictions. The Coast Guard calls on CBP drones, including the MQ-9 Reaper, to be its eyes in the sky when it needs coverage.
When a drone spots a suspicious vessel, the Coast Guard follows up with its own aircraft and boats, as in a recent drug submarine bust off the coast of South America.
But often, Kasper said, CBP isn't able to help out.
"It's really no fault of Customs and Border Protection, because CBP has its own operational mission and that's primarily targeting the land border," he said. "More often than not, the Coast Guard is told no, and that's not because CBP is trying to create tension with the Coast Guard."
To fix that issue, Hunter wants to give the Coast Guard money to buy some of its own land-based UASs. As part of that process, they're seeking surveillance assistance requests to want the numbers, in order to demonstrate that the Coast Guard is regularly asking for back-up and not receiving it.
However, those requests are done on an ad-hoc basis, Kasper said, and not necessarily recorded.
"We know very well that CBP is not going to be able to respond with the full cache of answers that we're asking for," he said. "That underscores that the Coast Guard is being disadvantaged."
Hunter, who leads the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee, also recently called for the Coast Guard to use the heavy-duty lasers they have, which they're barred from using.
For its part, the Coast Guard has been working on both land- and cutter-based UAS acquisitions for years, with little progress.
A year ago, the service's UAS program manager told Navy Times that they were stuck in a sort of limbo.
"We're really agnostic with what it is — whether it's fixed-wing, rotary-wing," Lt. Cmdr. Dan Broadhurst said. "But what we need is a tactical, local asset that we can send out for up to 12 hours and probably up to about 5,000 feet."
The service has tested the Navy's MQ-8B Fire Scout and the ScanEagle at sea, but they weren't the right fit. The Reaper isn't perfect either, he said.
"Well, it's a two-trick pony," he said of the MQ-9 Reaper. "It does drugs and migrants very well, but it doesn't maybe do the rest of the Coast Guard's 11 missions quite as effectively."
But Hunter's point is, it can do the land-based job for now. To up the ante, there is language in the House Armed Services' Committee's recent mark-up of the fiscal year 2017 Defense Authorization Bill that would require the Coast Guard to only buy a system that's already been approved by the Defense Department or the Homeland Security Department, home to both the Coast Guard and CBP.
"What we’re trying to tell the Coast Guard in that provision is the science and the technology continues improving, but the market is doing that," Kasper said. "The Coast Guard shouldn’t waste its time creating a new requirement for something that [industry will] they’ll be unable to match."