This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
In February, a P-3 ‘Orion’ maritime surveillance aircraft identified and tracked a suspicious vessel suspected of trafficking cocaine and vectored in a US Coast Guard cutter to make the interdiction. The Coast Guard seized the vessel and found more than 3,300 pounds of cocaine aboard. US Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, operates P-3s and other aircraft from Naval Air Stations in Corpus Christi, Texas and Jacksonville, Florida. From these bases they help provide domain awareness over the maritime approaches to the United States in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific. Operations, like the one in February, are often lauded as interagency triumphs – with multiple agencies working together to secure America’s borders. However, they also highlight the lack of maritime surveillance assets within the US Coast Guard itself, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Caribbean where the Coast Guard is forced to rely on interagency cooperation for aerial maritime surveillance. The Coast Guard urgently needs to invest in its own family of unmanned systems that can provide it with the maritime domain awareness that it relies on other agencies for.
The US Coast Guard is responsible for law enforcement and policing in the territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the United States, this encompasses eleven specific missions. The Coast Guard also routinely deploys forces globally in support of the Department of Defense and other national priorities like ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises, including to the Strait of Taiwan or its long-standing patrol force in the Persian Gulf. But within the Western Hemisphere alone, the Coast Guard is responsible for policing over 4.2 million square miles of water and nearly a hundred-thousand miles of coastline. In this vast expanse, by far the most vulnerable points are the Caribbean and East Pacific approaches to the United States. The US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that as much as 80% of the cocaine leaving the Andean region in South America travels by maritime means, with approximately 90% of it eventually landing in Central America before crossing over the US-Mexico border on its way to US consumers. Illicit narcotics, however, are not the only issue the Coast Guard needs to address, US partners in the region are increasingly concerned about illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. This has lead the Coast Guard to deploy cutters to support operations across Latin America from Ecuador to Argentina, to deal with the threat. Of all the regions where it operates, the Coast Guard is perhaps most important in the Caribbean where it works with dozens of smaller partners to address trans-national issues like narcotics trafficking, providing the maritime capacity that oftentimes smaller nations lack.
US Law enforcement agencies have long identified the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific, often referred to as the “transit zone,” as ideal for interdicting illegal shipments, whether the cargo is drugs, weapons or trafficked humans. Maritime narcotics shipments are almost always made in bulk, and the further they travel from their point of origin, the more valuable they become, making seizure in the transit zone much more costly to traffickers than seizures in South America. Additionally, ocean interception represents a low-risk area for interdiction – that is to say that once assets are detailed for interdiction traffickers are not likely to resist capture. But before shipments can be interdicted in the transit zone they need to be found – and searching for go-fast boats and semi-submersibles with surface vessels is nearly impossible, primarily because the vessels are difficult to see. Radars mounted on law enforcement vessels are limited to the horizon by the curvature of the earth. Also critical is loiter time – manned platforms are limited by fuel constraints and eventually by the limits of human endurance. If you want to monitor large areas of the ocean you need to be up in the sky or using a fleet of networked sensors.
Analysts often lament how poorly resourced the US Coast Guard is compared to the other military services. Though considered an ‘armed service’ the Coast Guard is not part of the military, instead, since reforms following 9/11 it has resided in the Department of Homeland Security. It has just over 40,000 active-duty guardsman and a fleet of cutters and aircraft. In part because of this small size the Coast Guard relies on surveillance and detection from other agencies like Customs and Border Protection (CBP) aircraft, a barrage of high-altitude balloons or US military assets including high-end weapon systems like B-1 ‘Lancer’ bombers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. While certainly effective, these platforms were designed to fight the Soviet Union and are far more expensive than what is required to track smugglers, the B-1 costs over $60,000 an hour to operate and the destroyers cost nearly a billion dollars per vessel. CBP operates a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft and large unmanned platforms that are much more cost effective. However, these assets are all based in the continental United States and the Coast Guard operates globally. The Coast Guard needs in-house assets that are effective at maritime surveillance and detection, and that can operate wherever the Coast Guard is deployed.
Thankfully, putting unmanned aerial assets on every medium and large cutter is a goal of the current Commandant, Admiral Karl Schultz, and investing in unmanned systems is a part of the service’s strategic plan. Such a move will significantly improve the maritime domain awareness of Coast Guard units at sea and help mitigate their dependence on assets and support loaned from the military and other agencies. But the current Coast Guard program for ship-based UAS is contractor owned and operated while the Coast Guard looks for a permanent solution and experimentation is ongoing. Two new types of UAS look particularly promising for the Coast Guard – vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAS, and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). Both of these technologies were successfully demonstrated last year, VTOL UAS was operated from a cutter during a deployment as were two different unmanned surface vessels, each with a mission endurance as long as 30 days.
Ultimately, what is needed is a family of systems that can provide the Coast Guard with an organic and layered maritime surveillance network. Realizing this for the Coast Guard will free up CBP and military assets for other missions more in line with their respective institutional priorities and further empower the Coast Guard. These platforms are desperately needed in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific where the Coast Guard is the lead agency in intercepting illicit narcotics traffickers but also in the fighting against IUU fishing and maritime crime. In setting acquisition priorities for the Coast Guard it would be wise to remember Roger Barnett’s assertion in his book Navy Strategic Culture that “…the most difficult problem in naval warfare is finding the adversary.” Investments in unmanned systems will help support Coast Guard missions not just in counter narcotics but across their 11 statutory missions around the globe, it all starts with domain awareness.
Walker D. Mills is a US Marine officer and graduate of the War Studies program at King's College, London. He also holds degrees from Brown University and the Naval Postgraduate School. He is also an associate editor and podcast host for the Center for International Maritime Security, a non-resident fellow at Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War and a non-resident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
He also edited the Caribbean Maritime Security series for Strife Blog in 2021.