When Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, it brought together 22 separate government organizations ranging from the Secret Service to the Border Patrol. A number of these had been operating fleets of maritime and aerial patrol platforms. The leadership of the new department recognized the importance of concentrating and integrating its assets, most particularly aircraft and marine vessels. To this end, DHS assigned Customs and Border Protection (CBP) overall responsibility for management of air and maritime systems and within CBP stood up the Office of Air and Marine (OAM) in 2005.
OAM thus became the world’s largest law enforcement air and marine service with around 280 aircraft and 100 marine vessels. Due to the manner in which it was created, OAM inherited a collection of some 20 different aerial systems, many even then quite old and most not equipped with the kinds of modern surveillance and communications capabilities commonly available on military aircraft. One of the major sources for aircraft and helicopters was the Department of Defense which had a practice of providing used platforms exiting the inventory on long-term loan to civil agencies.
From its inception, OAM faced twin challenges: first, operating and maintaining a diverse and aging aerial fleet; and second, implementing a program to modernize that fleet. With respect to the first, OAM has demonstrated remarkable success operating this fleet. However, the office faces difficulties due to the age of its systems. According to Major General Michael Kostelnik (Ret.), Assistant Commissioner, Office of Air and Marine, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “The age of CBP’s assets is a growing concern. On average, nearly half of our aircraft are still more than 33 years old. While age alone does not determine aircraft safety, the office continues to experience age-related maintenance problems with some of its main-line aircraft.” A number of the oldest types of aircraft have had to be retired. Others have only limited airworthiness or are available only due to heroic maintenance efforts. While some types of aircraft such as the P-3 Orion are undergoing service life extension programs, most of the older systems are at the end of their expected service lives and must soon be replaced.
DHS has a second air force, this one operated by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard air arm is stressed by heavy demands on the fleet. Like OAM, the Coast Guard has been struggling to modernize its air arm as part of the Deepwater program. Some older systems, such as the 95 HH-65B Dolphin helicopters, are being upgraded and others such as the HU-25 Falcon aircraft are being replaced.
Over the past several decades, there has been a revolution in military airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Integrated airborne reconnaissance has been one of the most decisive factors in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in NATO’s air campaign in Libya. Unfortunately, DHS’s aerial fleets need to exploit this revolution for the purposes of securing the nation’s airspace, borders and territorial waters. This means, in part, providing modern sensor suites on aircraft and helicopters. It also means deploying unmanned aerial systems when operating issues posed by the FAA are resolved.
DHS’s current aerial fleets are undersized, heavily engaged and aging. Both OAM and the Coast Guard would benefit from the recapitalization of their aging assets. However, even before the current budget crisis, funding cuts have set back efforts to modernize these aerial fleets. As a result, the security of the homeland is at increased risk. The Obama Administration and Congress must provide the necessary resources to allow the full and timely modernization of DHS’s air systems, including the acquisition of modern aircraft and helicopters.
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