US Customs Service Upgrades P-3B Aircraft (Sept 2002)

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2002

Upgrades to the United States Customs Service’s P-3 aircraft, while scheduled before the September 11 attack, will serve to enhance the US’ ability to spot and stop terrorist activities. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. (Marietta, GA) recently won a $27 million contract to upgrade an additional four of the U.S. Customs Service’s (USCS) eight P-3B Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. Once upgraded, these AEW aircraft will have extensive aircrew operational commonality with the USCS’s eight P-3 "Slick" Interceptor aircraft, half of which are P-3Bs and half P-3As.

The Lockheed Martin P-3 AEW Orion was developed using ex-Royal Australian Air Force and US Navy P-3B airframes, combined with the APS-125 Radar and Mission System (later retrofitted with an APS-138 system) from the US Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye shipboard AEW&C aircraft. The United States Customs Service, which is at this time the sole user of the P-3 AEW, took delivery of the first one in 1988 for drug interdiction and since September, 2001, has been operating them for counter-terrorism as well. Another radar is fitted to the P-3A/B “Slick” (interceptor version) such as the APG-67, derived from the F-16. The AN/APG-67 multimode radar provides enhanced long-range detection and tracking capabilities in air and surface modes. An optional high-resolution synthetic aperture imaging capability is available to enhance navigation and surface attacks. The Slick also has an electro-optical and infrared pod that is deployed from the front fuselage bay during night missions. Aircraft self-defense capabilities are classified.

For this contract, besides a radar upgrade, the four USCS AEW P-3Bs’ flight and mission systems will be modified to a configuration that duplicates that of AEW No. 7, which Lockheed Martin upgraded in 2001. According to Lockheed Martin, the core of the cockpit changes rests in the FMDS, an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) consisting of four Astronautics 6-by-8-inch (15.2-by-20.3-cm) active matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCDs). The LCDs support primary flight and navigation displays, as well as color weather radar. They are integrated with a CMC Electronics (Quebec, Canada) CMA-900 FMS, which supports flight plan entry and operation and the Astronautics Corporation of America (Milwaukee, WI) autopilot and flight director.

The crew for a USCS mission includes three pilots, two flight engineers and three detection systems specialists. The typical USCS mission lasts eight to 10 hours. Pilot training on the modernized P-3 has begun at the USCS flight facility in Corpus Christi, Texas. Each USCS P-3 pilot must complete two qualification flights following two weeks of ground school. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics will serve as the prime contractor, with Lockheed Martin Aircraft & Logistics Centers in Greenville, SC, performing all modification work. Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems (Eagan, MN), and Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems (Syracuse, NY), are providing the mission avionics suite and the APS-145 radar for the upgrade from the APS-138, under existing contracts with the USCS. “The APS-145 provides much better overland radar surveillance than the –138,” advised Jim Norris of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. (Ft. Worth, TX). “It's historically been used by the E-2C to simultaneously track several hundred targets. This latest mod makes it better suited for overland missions and has additional radar modes, functions, and automatic tracking capabilities beyond that of the –138.”

Over the last 18 years, Lockheed Martin has successfully modified eight AEW aircraft and eight Slicks for the USCS, the last of which was delivered in February 2002.

The USCS AEW aircraft are P-3Bs that have the E-2C’s 24-foot radome mounted on top of the fuselage that house the APS-138/145 radar antenna. These aircraft are used primarily for long-range surveillance and vehicle interdiction with a primary mission to detect, identify, classify and track aircraft and maritime surface craft. The aircraft have a 4,400-nautical-mile range and can stay aloft for up to 13 hours.

As Norris recently noted in Aviation Today in a perfect scenario, called a ‘double eagle,’ the AEW [Dome] aircraft tracks the target[s] and the Slick identifies and documents the target[s]. Targets may be vehicles potentially bearing drugs or weapons. The USCS has been the U.S. government’s lead agency for drug interdiction. Mission assignments come from the Department of Defense for South American transit zones and from the USCS for domestic and border zones. After September 11, 2001, mission priorities have changed. An unnamed insider said that the USCS is expected to take delivery of additional P-3A/B aircraft for modification to customs and border patrol duty. The four aircraft covered under this new contract are being rebuilt at Lockheed Martin’s Greenville, SC, facility, with engineering assistance from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Ft. Worth and Marietta, GA.

“A third operator station has also been added aft,” Norris said. "This station will enhance tracking capabilities by adding manpower and an additional crew sensor station that compliments the two primary such stations.”

This upgrade was scheduled to be part of the aircraft's evolution before Homeland Security became a major issue, noted Jim Saye of Lockheed Martin’s Marietta Office, but the timing couldn’t have been better. The main reason for the upgrade was for systems transparency for crews – so they can go among any of the USCS' 16 P-3s without having to be retrained. CS has eight AWs and eight "slicks."

The APS-145 carried by the E-2C and soon by the eight USCS AEW P-3 is a high-power UHF Doppler radar. Its range is a full 40 percent beyond that of the APS-138, which it will replace, and can monitor and track more than 2,000 targets simultaneously. It also has advanced jam avoidance and other ECCM capabilities, and performs adaptive signal processing – both features of high value in the dense EM environment above the US.

Over Land, aircraft can be tracked regardless of terrain and target density. At sea, the APS-145 is capable of tracking all objects of interest, from large ships to patrol boats, from fast moving aircraft to stationary platforms and incorporates a triple Pulse Repetition Frequency (PRF) feature which allows for continuous detection of all targets over the entire tactical area -- land, sea and the horizon -- simultaneously.

The AN/APG-67 multimode radar carried by the P-3B “Slick” provides the pilot with the situation awareness and fire control capabilities necessary for more aggressive tracking and engagement. It provides both air and surface modes and has long-range detection and tracking capabilities. An optional high-resolution synthetic aperture imaging capability is available to enhance navigation and surface attacks.

Modification work is scheduled to begin in July 2002 and is expected to be completed by September 2003.

The USCS currently operates their aircraft from NAS Jacksonville, FL, and NAS Corpus Christi, TX.