Of SCIFs and Pallets

of SCIFs and Pallets


To execute its wide range of missions now and in the future, the Coast Guard is undertaking a $30 billion portfolio of fleet recapitalization projects over the next quarter century. These new ships and aircraft give the service new or greatly improved capabilities versus its assets already in service. One of the fundamental ways in which the Coast Guard is achieving these enhanced capabilities is through its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—or C4ISR—acquisition program.

“C4ISR capabilities improve our coastal and offshore maritime domain awareness,” says Captain John Wood, the Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate’s C4ISR program manager. “C4ISR helps us execute our missions with data collection and processing, and gives us a force multiplier with our decision support systems. It’s something we have to invest in to give us a significant edge over our foes and threats.”

The Coast Guard’s national security cutter and HC-144A Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), two key assets in the Coast Guard’s portfolio of more than 20 acquisition projects and programs, provide case studies that clearly demonstrate the impact that C4ISR has on new surface and air assets, enabling them to execute their missions more effectively and efficiently.

The National Security Cutter SCIF

The Legend-class NSCs are the hallmark of the service’s recapitalized fleet. At 418 feet long, the NSC is the largest and most technically advanced cutter in the Coast Guard, with capabilities for maritime homeland security, law enforcement and national defense missions. Eight NSCs are planned to replace the aging 378-foot high endurance cutters that have been in service since the 1960s. The first two NSCs, Coast Guard cutters Bertholf and Waesche, have been commissioned and are executing missions. The third NSC was delivered to the Coast Guard in September and will be commissioned next spring. Construction on the fourth NSC began recently.

Cutters act as floating command centers. A decade ago, the events of September 11 caused the nation, as well as the Coast Guard, to dramatically review its security posture, including the intelligence capabilities of the NSC. In 2003, although the Bertholf was deep in the throes of its design process, approvals were made to reserve weight, space and electrical capability to make room for a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) on board to meet new post-9/11 requirements. A SCIF is used for processing the highest levels of classified information that concerns or is derived from intelligence sources and must be handled with access controls established by the director of central intelligence. SCIF details were refined as design and construction of Bertholf progressed.

As the Coast Guard’s first SCIF afloat, its addition required a dramatic increase in the service’s communications technology. For assistance, the Coast Guard sought out the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command’s (SPAWAR) expertise in and knowledge of SCIFs and associated systems integration. Considerable collaboration between the Coast Guard and SPAWAR resulted in a unique set of requirements for the first non-Department of Defense SCIF. SPAWAR then provided third-party technical authorities to ensure a rigorous, independent validation of the new capabilities.

“The SCIF gives us a secure communications capability and interoperability with other departments, such as DoD,” Wood said. “Many of our missions revolve around doing offshore maritime operations with DoD and we have to be able to share secure information, data and voice communications. As a component of the Department of Homeland Security, we also share classified information interdepartmentally with Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on our coastal missions.”

The Bertholf was commissioned in August 2008, and in September 2009, Bertholf began the last phase of the rigorous installation and testing of the SCIF and its dependent systems. This six-month period included a wide range of accreditations, including both visual and instrumented Tempest inspections. Tempest is a code name for testing for compromising intelligence-bearing communications that could be intercepted by adversaries.

In April 2010, a one-year authority was granted by the Department of Homeland Security for Bertholf to operate the SCIF’s core capabilities, known as Ship’s Signals Exploitation Equipment (SSEE) and the Sensitive Compartmented Information network systems. In March, SSEE upgrades extended Bertholf’s SCIF authority to operate to a three-year approval.

Authority to operate the SCIF on board is a significant milestone for the Coast Guard. Not only does it provide for secure communications between at-sea military and law enforcement units, but it also enables the NSC to benefit from and share realtime operational knowledge and intelligence with shore-side Coast Guard operational commands. This kind of information sharing has been instrumental as the Bertholf has executed Coast Guard missions at sea this year, working alongside other Coast Guard and U.S. Navy assets, to interdict illicit vessels in the Eastern Pacific that were trafficking nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine.

The Maritime Patrol Aircraft’s Mission System Pallet

The Coast Guard’s HC-144A MPA is a medium-range surveillance aircraft designed for a variety of missions including search and rescue, law enforcement, drug interdiction, counterterrorism and defense operations. It is the first all-new aircraft delivered to the Coast Guard as part of its recapitalization effort and is based on the highly successful CASA CN-235, which is already in use around the world as a patrol, surveillance and transport platform. The HC-144A MPA has a mission endurance in excess of nine hours airborne, depending upon the aircraft configuration, combined with its powerful surveillance capabilities, which allows it to augment Coast Guard cutters and helicopters in executing missions.

The Coast Guard currently has MPA aircraft operating in Miami and Mobile, Ala., with 12 HC-144As already delivered to the service. The 13th and 14th aircraft are under construction, and an option was exercised in August for construction of a 15th aircraft. A total fleet of 36 of the medium-range fixed wing aircraft are planned to replace the Coast Guard’s aging HU-25 Falcons, which will all be retired by the end of fiscal year 2014.

The aircraft’s C4ISR subsystem is a palletized system, known as the mission system pallet (MSP), and is delivered separately from the HC-144A contracts. The MSP is a roll-on, roll-off suite of electronic equipment that collects, compiles, interprets and disseminates data from the aircraft’s multiple integrated sensors to transmit and receive both classified and unclassified information from other assets including other aircraft, surface vessels and shore facilities. The pallet provides the aircraft with real-time situational awareness, improved surveillance sensors and radar, visible and infrared electro-optical surveillance, data recording, a law enforcement communications suite and enhanced secure data encryption capabilities. The MSP is central to the HC-144A’s core mission capability as it contributes critical information to build maritime domain awareness.

The pallet allows two operators to control the aircraft’s radar, electro-optical/infrared sensors and communications equipment that collects, manages and transmits data. Information collected by the aircraft’s sensors is transmitted to the Coast Guard’s shorebased National Intelligence Coordination Center via satellite communications. The center then posts relevant data to a common operational picture shared by command centers, cutters and aircraft in the area.

“The pallet provides situational awareness that helps augment our cutter fleet,” Wood said. “It has on-board processing, where we can use radars or electro-optic imaging to collect information and process it on board the aircraft. That enables us to either make tactical decisions while on the asset, or transmit that information elsewhere, given our ability to provide network connectivity.”

The MSP has roll-on/roll-off capability that gives the fleet the flexibility to accomplish multiple missions. By removing the pallet, the aircraft has the capacity for humanitarian relief and evacuation missions. The HC-144A assisted with disaster response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the aircraft transported oil-impacted wildlife, provided on-scene information and located surface vessels using its sensors during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year.

In December 2010, the HC-144A’s endurance and MSP capabilities allowed it to assist in its first drug smuggler interdiction on a go-fast boat transiting southeast of Cuba. The aircraft tracked the vessel for five hours until surface assets could arrive on scene. Forty-three bales of marijuana were found in the water and on the boat, marking the aircraft’s first drug interdiction.

C4ISR Enhances Detection and Decision-Making

For the NSC and the MPA, better protected communications and state-of-the-market sensors give the assets added security and situational awareness. Both the NSC and MPA have connectivity ashore that allows them to offload the information they collect, improving the Coast Guard’s tactical decision-making process whether operators are aboard or in a command center.

“Having sensors on board vessels and aircraft are critical for detection, whether it’s search and rescue where we want to detect somebody in the water, or whether it’s detecting a go-fast boat and having the radar capability for long-range sensing over the horizon to find and follow it,” Wood said. “Without those sensors and the processors and the communications that C4ISR provides, you’re looking aimlessly across the water.” ♦

Charles Hunter is the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate C4ISR Aviation Asset Manager and Michael Valliant is a Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate Writer.

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