Friday, May 11, 2018

Sounds like a match made in (the) heaven(s)

It was reported yesterday that the US Coast Guard is looking for a number of long-range reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) for coastal patrol.

The US Coast Guard issued a request for demonstrations of long-range, ultra-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in US coastal transit zones that are highly trafficked by illegal drug and migrant smugglers.

The requested drone would be land-based, must have the ability to fly for more than 24h and a service ceiling of 15,000ft above sea level, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s RFP. The UAV’s sensor payload must be able to discern activity associated with drug and migrant smuggling aboard anchored and moving maritime targets.

. . .

... the US Coast Guard is looking for an aircraft with a patrol airspeed of at least 50kt (93km/h). It must also include maritime payloads such as an electro-optical and infrared full motion video system, a maritime surveillance radar, a radio frequency and direction finding sensor, and a tactical communications radio and data link.

There's more at the link.

Interestingly, the US Air Force retired its MQ-1 Predator UAV's earlier this year, putting about 150 of them into storage pending disposal.

First Lt. Annabel Monroe, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command, said that the Air Force is still figuring out what it will do with its retiring Predator fleet. Some could be transferred to Air Force museums, and the Air Force is exploring the possibility of transferring some to the Navy.

But the Air Force won’t sell them to private organizations, Monroe said, and does not expect to sell or give them to allied nations through the Excess Defense Article Program for Security Cooperation.

Again, more at the link.

The Predator's specifications appear to meet or exceed every one of the Coast Guard's requirements.  According to the USAF, they include:

Payload: 450 pounds (204 kilograms)
Speed: cruise speed around 84 mph (70 knots), up to 135 mph
Range: 770 miles (675 nautical miles)
Ceiling: 25,000 feet (7,620 meters)

I'm willing to bet the official range figure cited above is conservative.  Predators have demonstrated an endurance of 24 hours during operations, although obviously that didn't involve prolonged high-speed transits or carrying a heavy weapon load (neither of which is a USCG requirement).  They cost $20 million apiece - and they're just sitting there, waiting for a new home or for disposal.  The Coast Guard could, effectively, get as many as it needs for free, needing only to pay for their sensor packages to be upgraded to something more suitable for the USCG's mission.  (I wonder if they could be "plumbed" to carry auxiliary fuel tanks on their weapons stations?  That would extend their range even further.)

I presume the USCG and the USAF are already talking to each other.  If they aren't, why not?  The USCG has already taken over most of the C-27 Spartan transports the USAF discarded some years ago.  Looks like they could once again augment their fleet courtesy of the USAF.



Rob said...

The CG using other services surplus is not new.
The CG HH-52A's running gear was all Army surplus (H-19) with a new (de-rated) gas turbine engine. We got the 1st one in the early 60's.

Using surplus Predators is not a bad idea but I suspect "they" already have something else in mind, something that fits the requirements to a "Tee"!
But I could be wrong....

Uncle Lar said...

Anyone else mildly uncomfortable with the fact that the operational ceiling of those drones is well into commercial airspace? I expect the CG would not want them tracked by air traffic control, though I just might be mistaken. Be awkward to say the least for a passenger jet on approach to a coastal airport to suddenly eat a drone.
Random thought, perhaps the coasties could take over some of the soon to be retired A-10 CAS gunships. Truly drug smuggling interdiction with a vengeance.

Aesop said...

1) The Coasties can, should and probably will take over the drone fleet en masse.
2) Replacing Hellfire missiles with aux fuel tanks is a slam-dunk cinch.
3) Commercial air lanes are well-known and plotted.
De-conflicting drones in the 500-800-mile coastal airspace would be relative child's play.
Curiously, the USCG operates cutters in the very sea lanes as commercial shipping, and yet with 0% of the collision rate of the US Navy surface fleet, under similar circumstances. Probably because they still train their watchstanders not to crash their ships.

Liaison with ATC is a real, but minimal complicating factor for the USCG.
The primary loiter areas for the drones would be well out to sea, and in general well out of commercial transit corridors. They're mainly looking for semi-submersibles and go-fasts transiting and refueling at mother ships far offshore, and if things progress inshore, dropping the drones to 12K and VFR space is a relatively easy task, as is coordination with ATC.

BTW, the USCG, like the Navy and USAF, has priority within the US ADIZ anyways for homeland security missions. They'd simply issue a notice to ATC, and ATC would re-route all traffic out of the airspace.

This should happen. In fact, should have been going on since Day One, rather than waiting until 20 years later.

Andrew Wetzel said...

Another good fit for all those drones would be for border protection in the Southwest, and along the known smuggling routes between the USA and Canada.

Hmmm, the Coast Guard is under DHS, the Border Patrol is under DHS. Not that I want DHS to have more toys to use against us, but, well, that is the Department, and those are the sub-departments, where the Predators need to go.

Ron Merrell said...

Apologies to Aesop, but I think it's unlikely that you could plumb fuel through those wings. That's a flexible wing, with a very thin cross-section, a high-aspect ratio, without much room inside - and it already has a liquid in there, a wet wing deicing system. Anything with a 24 hour endurance requirement at 15,000 feet has to have deicing capability, so you can't remove it. If you wanted to spend the money, you might be able to design a larger replacement wing that would add endurance and have the room for fuel lines, but I don't know if the fuselage would be strong enough for it. As an alternative, you could possibly keep the existing wing and instead add a conformal tank on the sides of the fuselage, like the F-15E.

fltactical said...

Maybe I am wrong on this. But if the specs are accurate, then an 84 mph cruising speed and an 770 mile range translates to under a 10 hour endurance in the air. The Coast Guard wants a 24 hour minimum on station. So these won't fit the bill, or am I missing something here?

Brett baker said...

Over at CDR Salamander, several people asked how someone that junior could be a watchstander. More than one person said they were way more experienced before they were responsible for a ship.

Aesop said...

No apology necessary, as I said nothing whatsoever about "plumbing the wing". (That was our host's musing aloud.)

I said they'll replace unwanted munitions with additional fuel capacity. How is a problem for aeronautical engineering, but there's no requirement for the fuel tanks to hung on the same wing hardpoints, nor if you did so for fuel lines to be necessarily placed inside the wing.

And as for range vs. endurance, those Predators deployed for maritime surveillance won't be flying at cruise speed except outbound and inbound. On patrol/on station, they'll loiter just safely above stall speed, which I suspect will commensurately increase loiter time over flying at normal cruising speed. Even at 60 knots, they'll be travelling 3-6X faster than most anything moving on the water.

Two Hellfires weigh an additional 200 pounds, which gets you probably another 25-30 gallons of fuel over the 100 gal. normal internal load. And an endurance, from the current spec of 24 hours, closer to 30+.
Or the ability to power out and back at full speed, then throttle back to loiter over their patrol areas at min speed for max fuel economy and longest endurance.

Even allowing for real-world vs. sales brochure specs, another 30 gallons would be just the thing in this case.
Or half & half, replacing one missile with fuel capacity, and deploying a maritime search radar or something similar that could accomplish that mission within the 100# weight limit. They already have daylight, IR, and thermal imaging.

All it takes to fly them would be dropping a trailer or two at a USCG AirStn, and hitting the requisite satellite.

The Coasties would get the exact capability they want for a cost of essentially $0, since the Predator fleet is already bought and paid for. That's pretty much how they roll anyways, so I expect when they wrote their proposal, this is the answer they were angling for in the first place, as opposed to trying to chisel out funding for developing a new, untried, untested airframe to be developed at high cost from scratch.

And for the fellow that thought they'd be great on the southern border, they've already been deployed to that duty for thirteen years, since 2005, and CBP already uses them for coastal maritime surveillance missions, presumably in the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and of the CA coast.
Both of which missions have been in commercial airspace for over a decade, BTW.

Letting the Coasties play with some isn't much of a stretch.

Islacrusez said...

Bah, now I have to identify myself by my google account. Yay? Incidentally, hard to complain about issues with your comments changes without first accommodating those changes. Ah well.

Sounds like a good plan, though alternatives aren't necessarily engineering a new airframe. I do believe the Antares E2 would fit the bill nicely.