Crewmembers aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton (WMSL 752) fuel an embarked MH-65 Dolphin helicopter near the Bering Strait, July 10, 2018. (Coast Guard Photo by Lt. Brian Dykens)

Building Capability, from Drones to Undersea: USCG Rear Adm. Ryan on Goals, Partnerships

The assistant commandant overseeing, maintaining and developing Coast Guard capabilities envisions a future with more undersea and unmanned aerial capability, and is counting on “strong relationships” in the private sector to help advance those goals.

Rear Adm. Michael P. Ryan told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent Maritime & Port Security 2019 event that the capability to confront cyber challenges is likewise “without a doubt” critical.

“And I think we need to continue to get smart about how we’re operating in that domain. From a Coast Guard perspective, we’re looking at that as another operational environment, that we need to be able to execute Coast Guard missions,” he said. “So it’s much broader than just being able to defend a computer network. We’re talking about the ability to leverage cyber capability so that we can support our activities in the maritime environment, so that we can further support and enable our operations around the globe, and really our ability to help protect the infrastructure of this nation because we’re smart and have secure perimeters and boundaries set.”

“We can engage with stakeholders like the maritime industry so they understand how they influence this nation’s success,” Ryan added. “So for us, as quantified in our Coast Guard cyber strategy, it’s really a three-pronged effort. We’re trying to really grow into our ability to support our operations as well as continue to do more to protect the infrastructure of the nation.”

Rear Adm. Michael P. Ryan

The drone space is weighed in terms of “small-, medium- and long-range requirements, and there’s different capability in each of those different tiers.”

“We want to make sure that we’re applying capability across each of those three environments, in different parts of operations really to enable our operational community to employ them in complement to the other things and the other assets that they have at their disposal,” the admiral said. “And that’s everything from a commercial, off-the-shelf, great quadcopter that we can put into the hands of a marine inspector to help support a barge inspection when it’s in a fleeting area to being able to employ longer-range, broader endurance unmanned capability on board our national assets like our national security cutter. Allow that to expand and project further afield — maybe one day in replacement of carrying a helicopter on board.”

“We can use a medium-range unmanned system and get the same type of broad intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability that’s going to really be a game-changer for interdictions,” Ryan noted. “And then more broadly in the really long endurance, broader reach, we want to be able to employ DoD-grade capability that allows us to get persistent ISR maybe hundreds of miles offshore for 12 to 24 hours a day so that we don’t have to have cutters on perpetual patrol, but we still have great awareness about what’s happening in the maritime commerce.”

The Coast Guard also has “some outstanding needs” in biometrics, bearing in mind the needs for “legislative authorization to employ biometrics and being mindful of the privacy rights of our citizens, but also being understanding of who are we, engaging in different types of environments” and always being concerned about officer safety during maritime interactions.

“Are there any outstanding wants and warrants for individuals that we’re perhaps conducting a boarding of their vessel? Or are we able to communicate where we had an engagement with somebody operating in the maritime environment that may ultimately be information that’s valuable to the broader national security picture?” Ryan hypothesized. “Or if somebody is on a watch list, can Coast Guard members and the teams that we have operating have that insight, that information, and in a timely fashion be able to apply that to the activities that they’re conducting?”

“This is another one of those areas where I don’t need R&D-grade capability,” he added. “I just need to be able to run biometrics on individuals that we’re authorized to take them from and reach back into national-level repositories and have an understanding of who are we interacting with, and what does that mean? Because we adapt our engagements and interactions off of all of those cues. So we’re doing some things both near shore and trying to expand our capability offshore. That’s still probably an area of growth for us.”

Ryan also emphasized that “we’re not doing a lot with undersea capability today — we’re using commercial-grade capability in certain interactions that are appropriate, but when I continue to envision where’s areas that maybe we’re lean on capability, that’s probably one.”

In his role, the admiral is tasked with defining “what requirements do I have in those arenas and translate that into a program need or a capability specifically that I want to try to employ,” while facing the hurdle that “lining all of those items up just needs more intellectual capital on our part to envision.”

“Everything in the Arctic is growing in relevance: our ability to operate there under the extreme environmental conditions, being able to project into isolated waters in an environment where there’s not a lot of supporting infrastructure, that all translates to you have to have the capability where your forces can operate independently, hopefully, but still have some connectivity back to their shore-based resources, but being able to sustain their activities on their own,” he said. “And so that’s one thing most immediately, it’s the communications capability — and not just from a search-and-rescue standpoint, but operating in areas that right now we don’t have good awareness about who else is there, about what else may be happening in that environment and our ability to provide command and control of our assets in the maritime domain.”

A consistent funding stream “that’s identified before the fiscal year starts” is key to giving the Coast Guard “maximum opportunity to really leverage that entire fiscal year to apply those vital resources.”

“Anything we can do to make sure that Congress understands what our needs are, coming through the administration’s position and really trying to make sure that we’re clear on what our requirements and our capability gaps are so that we’re well positioned each and every year to apply the dollars by the time we get the right outcomes for our mission,” he said.

Ryan knows that “partnerships are important” in mission capability, adding that “we have strong relationships with the companies we do business with mainly because I think we’re able to articulate what we need.”

“We just need that continued engagement with the special talent that this nation provides via the commercial sector. We’re going to continue to leverage that,” he said. “We’re not going to have a lot of organic Coast Guard development capability. And so we need to be looking far afield, thinking about who else can assist us and then making those connections and making those partnerships work.”

MCPOCG Vanderhaden Breaks Down Coast Guard Challenges, from Missions to Retention

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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