USCG IT at Sea

A maritime snapshot: Having dumped its
cargo of contraband, the boat was racing for open water. A few more
minutes, the commander knew, and it’d be gone. The Coast Guard cutter
needed permission to fire warning shots now. That meant getting a
couple of paragraphs listing the permission and any limitations back
from the nearest district headquarters several hundred miles across the
ocean to the northeast, and it had to be done quickly.

He looked again at the nearby computer
screen, seeing the preserved course of the conversation. Abruptly, an
additional message appeared. Quickly scanning the text, the commander
nodded. “OK. Let’s stop ‘em.”

While the $17 billion Deepwater program is
beefing up the brawn of the United States Coast Guard (USCG), it’s also
adding brains in the form of improved command, control, communications,
computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). After
only three years of the 20-year program, the information technology in
Deepwater is already having an impact on Coast Guard capabilities and

“The improvements are just tremendous,” said
Commander Gregory Sanial, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter
USCG Forward. “They’re like light years apart almost in the
capabilities that we have, especially to go secure.”

He cited a drug bust that involved a US Navy
ship and the Forward, a 270-foot medium endurance cutter that’s
undergone Deepwater C4ISR upgrades. The two vessels were able to
coordinate and communicate over SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol
Router Network), the secure part of the Defense Department’s Defense
Information Systems Network. Thanks to the secure chat capabilities and
the ability to include the Coast Guard’s own Miami-based district
command in the conversation, Sanial said that getting clearance to stop
a suspect vessel took six minutes. That’s in contrast with the hours,
or even as much as a day, it would have taken before the upgrades were
in place.

Chatting securely at sea

Deepwater’s multibillion-dollar contract was
awarded in June 2002 to Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS), a joint
venture between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Plans call for
the program to run in several increments, with the first phase adding
communication and computation capabilities, including installing, for
the first time, a classified network on board Coast Guard vessels.
Legacy ships and other assets will be upgraded during the first of four
roughly four-year program increments. Later vessels, which replace the
legacy ships during the program, will have these and more advanced
communication and computation resources built in from the beginning.

Other added capabilities will include a common
USCG command and control system, along with the ability to develop and
share law-enforcement case files. Later Deepwater phases expand on
these features through the implementation of software and training.

“The initial hardware developments are
frontloaded,” said Doug Wilhelm, C4ISR program manager at ICGS. “Later
capabilities provided in software are intended to then run on the
existing or refreshed hardware platforms, as appropriate.”

On legacy vessels, the hardware upgrades
include the use of compression, a variable bit-rate service, and
channel sharing between cutters to boost data communication
capabilities at sea from sometimes-on and sometimes-off to always-on.
The maximum data rates will also be upped from 64 kilobits per second
(kbps) to 128 kbps over a link provided by a global satellite network
operated by Inmarsat. Not all cutters will get the full data rate at
all times. Operational commanders on shore at Communications Area
Master Station (CAMS) will look at which ships are underway and what
the situation is for each ship. Then the commanders will determine
which vessels get the doubled data link and which get the single.

These enhanced data communications are
combined with a ship-wide network that provides both a classified and
unclassified local area network (LAN). Information security on board
ship is heightened by the use of devices that provide military grade
Type 1 encryption. Together, these provide access to SIPRNET and enable
secure, real-time communications with other cutters and shore sites. In
particular, the improvements allow Coast Guard personnel to securely
chat simultaneously with shore facilities and three, four or ten units
involved in an operation. The ability to cut and paste text as needed
is one key element in the speed up of getting authorization to fire
warning shots and stop a suspect boat.

Bigger bandwidth

The classified network on board these cutters
encompasses secure workstations and portables, along with the switches
and servers needed to make everything run. What it doesn’t include, at
least for the legacy cutters being upgraded, is new wiring. The
classified network runs over the same, already present physical cabling
that carries the unclassified LAN. Commander Richard Fontana, Coast
Guard Deepwater C4ISR program manager, explained, “Basically, we
installed the classified LAN and encrypted that information and
tunneled it through the unclassified.”

While 128 kbps doesn’t sound like much
bandwidth, Fontana noted that studies have shown that it’s sufficient
for current needs. Most of the information sent over the link is
related to traffic management, so an entire chart or map isn’t being
transmitted. Instead, only the data needed for target tracking or
related information travels over the link. This careful management of
data keeps the link from being overloaded. While encryption does add
some overhead, chat is low-bandwidth text communication and doesn’t
present much of a data burden.

Current bandwidth may be ample, but continued
evaluation will result in acquiring more bandwidth, if necessary. A 256
kbps satellite connection, for instance, is already planned.
Fortunately for those potential future needs, satellite capacity is
increasing, so obtaining bigger bandwidth in the future is likely to be
easier than it would be today. Inmarsat, for example, rolled out
satellite broadband with data rates of up to half a megabit per second
in the summer of 2005.

Other hardware communication upgrades include
an Automatic Identification System (AIS), which all vessels larger than
65 feet will be required to carry by 2008. AIS will provide automated
vessel status transmission and will help in collision avoidance and
traffic management. The final communication improvement will be the
installation of digital selective calling radios for distress calls,
and tactical law-enforcement radios so that Coast Guard vessels can
communicate with land-based police and other first responders.

At present, about half of the planned upgrades
for the first increment of the Deepwater program are complete. That,
according to ICGS system-of-system program manager James Pyon, puts the
program on schedule.

Sharing case files and beyond

On the software side, one of the developments
planned for Deepwater is the expansion of case file management
capabilities. According to Pyon, the Coast Guard currently has no
classified case file management system. That will be rectified with the
software Deepwater will deploy. The new classified case file system
will link to the unclassified case file management capability and will
expand the range of classifications. That will allow Coast Guard
personnel to respond with more precision to a situation, because
they’ll have more information. Pyon said, “You could potentially have a
target that shows up on your chart, and you click on it and that will
automatically link you to a case file, if it’s available.”

Implementing this case file management system
requires changes to district centers and the Atlantic and Pacific Coast
Guard centers responsible for combining and managing such maritime law
enforcement information. Rollout is underway, with the Miami District
Office expected to be the first, with the enhancement sometime in late
2005 or early 2006. The upgrades to the Maritime Fusion Intelligence
Centers in Portsmouth, Va., and Alameda, Calif., will be completed in
the latter part of 2006.

This software is being developed using three
sources. Some of the software, such as the operating systems, is the
commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) variety. Other software components come
from what are termed government off-the-shelf (GOTS) — programs and
tools developed by federal and other government agencies. Such software
is particularly important when ensuring interoperability between the
Coast Guard and DoD. The final Deepwater software element is the
development of custom software to support specific needs of the Coast
Guard or specific requirements of the Deepwater program as a whole.
Deepwater includes a technology management plan that addresses things
like COTS and other software obsolescence.

Before being put to sea, both the hardware and
software are tested at a 44,000-square-foot facility run by ICGS, the
Maritime Domain Awareness Center (MDAC). Various labs do the initial
tests needed to ensure that the equipment survives and functions in the
sometimes-harsh environment found at sea. The MDAC validates the
integrated hardware and software through digital simulation and other
means. This testing is done to demonstrate that the entire package
works before it’s deployed. Such efforts are part of what ICGS’ Pyon
refers to as a system-of-systems approach that is network-centric and
makes investments across all systems to meet total needs.

While Deepwater has a number of years to run
and several capability increments to go through, results so far
indicate that the C4ISR upgrades are worthwhile.

Sanial recalled that his encounter with a
smuggling ship was as close to real-time back-and-fourth information
flow as he’s ever experienced. He also noted that this was done on a
fairly new ship, by Coast Guard standards, but one that had nonetheless
undergone upgrades. Such legacy cutters will eventually be phased out,
and the newer ships will have enhanced C4ISR built in from the start.

 “I’m looking forward to having these capabilities that are designed in from the beginning,” he said. HST

Connecting cargo

While Deepwater is a big program with impact
on homeland security information technology at sea, there’s another DHS
effort that also involves seaborne IT. That’s the Marine Asset Tag
Tracking System (MATTS), where Phase II contracts have been awarded.
One company that won a Phase II contract is iControl Corp. of San Jose,

According to iControl vice president of
business development and MATTS program manager Diane Quick, Phase II
expands tracking beyond a port-centric solution. The goal is to track
assets anywhere and at any moment from the time a container is stuffed
to the time it’s unstuffed. This has to be done globally and in a
secure manner.

The solution being developed by iControl
expands upon the company’s commercial products. The company has created
data tags that work with sensors to monitor the integrity of a
container. The tags can cooperate to form a local network, transmitting
data by a variety of means. Quick noted that transmission can be to a
local gateway or to remote data collection centers via urban-area
broadband wireless networks, cellular networks or even directly up to
an orbiting satellite. The latter, she noted, is by far the most
expensive method and would only be used for short bursts of data.
Despite implementing all of these capabilities, iControl has managed to
wring costs out of the tags themselves by exploiting semiconductor

“We’ve reduced everything down to chip
levels,” said Quick. “These tags are actually about the size of a deck
of cards. They have their own power-management system and they have
their own power-scavenging mode that allows them to recharge their

The goal is to have the tags last 10 years,
because that’s the lifetime of the containers. Once that’s achieved,
the tags can be placed on a container and require no further
maintenance or intervention. The culmination of the MATTS Phase II
program will be a demonstration of a solution in a global operating
environment, a proof-of-concept that will have to meet a cost of less
than $50 per container per shipment.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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