US Customs Grounds P-3 Surveillance Aircraft Fleet

According to industry sources, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency has grounded its entire fleet of P-3 aircraft because of cracks in their wings, potentially hamstringing drug interdiction operations along the U.S.' southern border.

According to homeland security officials, the agency aircraft were grounded the last week of February after cracks in the wing structures of the most advanced versions of the P-3 Advanced Early Warning Aircraft were found during routine maintenance inspections. Subsequent tests found similar but smaller cracks in other P-3 models (Customs flies the P-3A and P-3B) and those aircraft were grounded as well. All told, sixteen aircraft reportedly have been grounded and it's unlikely that the fleet will be flying before April.

The grounding marks the first time the agency had grounded its P-3 fleet. The P-3 entered service with the US Navy in 1962 and in 1969 replaced the last of the fleet’s P2V-7 (SP-2H) “Neptune” aircraft. US Customs secured some surplus early P-3s beginning in the 1970s and retrofitted them with an AWACS-like rotating surveillance radar and enhanced communications gear. These P-3 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft are equipped with APS-145 radar (Lockheed Martin Ocean, Radar & Sensor Systems). The APS-145 radar traditionally has been used on the US Navy's Northrop Grumman E-2C for aircraft carrier fleet surveillance. The APS-145 has a range of more than 200 miles in any direction at altitude and can monitor and track several thousand targets simultaneously. It also has built-in anti-jam countermeasures. The APS-145 can perform automated environmental processing adjustments to provide enhanced detection over a cluttered background.

The P-3Cs now flying with the Navy were designed to fly 20,000 hours. Many are now approaching 30,000 hours and are deteriorating quickly – so quickly that the Navy’s P-3C fleet has declined from 228 in 2003 to just 150 today, with as many as 54 of these laid-up in re-winging and other major maintenance. One hundred and eight P-8As – a derivative of the Boeing 737-700EX – are to replace the P-3C between 2012 and 2019, although financing the $24 billion project remains in doubt. The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UCAV that is to augment the P-8A has not yet been defined.

Customs and Border Protection reportedly has about 250 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles. The P-3s perform largely a surveillance role by pinpointing drug smugglers or illegal immigrants in the air, on land or at sea and then directing law enforcement officers to intercept them. Most of their missions are long patrols along the U.S. border and over South and Central America. Customs’ sixteen P-3s are based at NAS Corpus Christi, TX, and NAS Jacksonville, FL. The agency is budgeted to spend $16 million this year to study a service life extension for its P-3s.

L-3 Communications (Waco, TX) maintains the aircraft under a multiyear logistics contract.

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