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Coast Guard Eyes Getting Its Own Drone Fleet

The U.S. Coast Guard is considering acquiring its own drone fleet to better perform missions ranging from search and rescue to drug interdiction, an official said.

The service -- the smallest branch of the U.S. armed forces and the only one that falls under the Homeland Security Department -- is still working to identify how many and what type of unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, it wants, according to Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel.

"All those details are still left to be worked out," Michel said on Friday during the annual Military Reporters and Editors conference in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. "We don't have all that data yet."

However, he did say Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft has expressed an interest in acquiring "longer-range, land-based UASs with wide-area surveillance capabilities."

The service, Michel said, has teamed with the department's U.S. Custom and Borders Protection to operate a fleet of less than a dozen General Atomics-made Predator B drones, known more commonly by their Air Force designation MQ-9 Reaper, with the goal of improving border security, especially in the southwest region of the U.S.

"We've been happy working with CBP as kind of a joint venture with them ... learning the pushes and pulls of operating this type of fleet," he said. "But the commandant thinks we've learned enough lessons and we can up our game."

The potential applications for the technology in Coast Guard operations are "limitless," Michel said.

"Things like this would have applications across the entire Coast Guard mission space," he said. "You can imagine these being used for search and rescue, or being used for fisheries enforcement, or being used for drug interdiction, or being used as part of our national defense role, or port security. I mean, it's just limitless uses if you had more of an unblinking eye."

The vice commandant acknowledged that budget constraints have impacted the type of equipment the Coast Guard can buy. The service unwittingly made headlines this year when the White House Office of Management and Budget initially proposed cutting $1.3 billion from its roughly $10 billion budget. The Trump administration reversed course after an outcry from maritime and naval advocates.

"Part of the reason we've been hesitant in the past [is] the Coast Guard is not a very rich agency," Michel said. "And in the world of unmanned systems, I don't think we could afford to be on the bleeding edge. But the technology has evolved enough now that I think we feel comfortable stepping more boldly into this space."

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