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Coast Guard Aviation Modernizes and Networks Its Aircraft Fleets

Despite tighter budgets, the Coast Guard aviation remains on guard over the threat

In May 2013, a P-3 Orion patrol aircraft of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cued the CGC Bertholf to a target several hundred miles off Costa Rica in the eastern Pacific. The national security cutter (NSC) launched a ScanEagle unmanned aircraft that maintained streaming video surveillance on the target and followed up with an armed MH-65D Dolphin multi-mission cutter helicopter. The arrest ultimately made by the crew of a long range interceptor cutterboat netted 1,250 pounds of cocaine and a half-dozen smuggling suspects. It also illustrated the seamless integration of air and sea assets for homeland defense. Coast Guard Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John P. Currier subsequently told Congress, “This is exactly how the system should work, and we’re very gratified to see this. The level of interoperability was simply not available with our legacy assets. It demonstrates how we apply these updated capabilities to defeat the threats in the offshore environment – and I would underscore the offshore environment is our area of greatest risk.”

The Coast Guard is the maritime arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Coast Guard aviation is essential to the layered security measures meant to deter, detect, interdict, and neutralize maritime threats before they reach American shores. In June, the crew of an HC-144A Ocean Sentry, a medium range surveillance aircraft (MRSA) used their sensors to spot a go-fast smuggling boat south of Puerto Rico. U.S. and Dutch vessels seized the smuggler suspects, and Ocean Sentry, HC-130 Hercules, and Dolphin aircraft helped find evidence jettisoned into the Caribbean. This summer, an MH-60T Jayhawk medium range recovery helicopter forward deployed to Kotzebue, Alaska, as part of interagency Operation Arctic Shield to provide greater maritime domain awareness in the far north.

Coast Guard aviation remains at the heart of its lifesaving mission.

Aviation also remains at the heart of the Coast Guard lifesaving mission. An HC-130J Super Hercules long range surveillance aircraft (LRSA) last October located the tall ship HMS Bounty sinking about 90 miles off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy and dropped life rafts, flares, and a datum marker buoy awaiting rescue helicopters. Two Jayhawks ultimately hoisted 14 sailors from 30-foot seas in 60-knot winds. The pilots of the modernized Jayhawks used their “glass cockpits” to overlay flight plans on weather radar displays and navigate to the rescue through poor visibility at low altitude. Despite tightening budgets, each major Coast Guard aviation community is modernizing to give the service a more capable, more connected fleet.

 

Long Range Surveillance Aircraft

The Coast Guard has flown different versions of the Lockheed Martin C-130 since 1959 and today mixes six current-generation HC-130Js with 22 older HC-130H aircraft. The LRSA supported more than 400 search and rescue cases last year, in addition to their heavy drug- and migrant-interdiction taskings. With up to 12 hours endurance, multiple sensors, and a sizeable payload, the Hercules remains a valuable surveillance, rescue, and cargo platform. The H-model C-130s, nevertheless, average 28 years old and grow more expensive to operate. The Coast Guard plans to phase out the HC-130H and standardize its LRSA fleet on 22 Super Hercules by 2027. Two HC-130Hs are scheduled for retirement in fiscal year 2014, and three new Super Hercules are scheduled for delivery in 2016. Interim fleet plans split LRSA strength evenly between HC-130Hs and -130Js, and select Hercules are undergoing structural and avionics renewal in three discrete segments to extend their lives and enhance their capability.

HC-130H cockpit

The HC-130H Hercules aircraft is undergoing the Avionics 1 upgrade to give the long-serving long range surveillance aircraft a cockpit and systems compatible with communications, navigation, and surveillance/air traffic management requirements. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Coast Guard has already completed HC-130H Discrete Segment 1 (DS1), replacing the AN/APS-137 nose radar with the modern Selex Galileo Seaspray 7500E on 16 aircraft. The active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is capable of tracking small surface targets and provides synthetic aperture radar modes to map icebergs and oil slicks and inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) modes to image maritime targets. The radar, FLIR Systems Star Safire® III electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor gimbal, Rockwell Collins DF-430 direction finder, and transponder-interrogating Automatic Identification System (AIS) are operated from the C-130 Airborne Sensor Palletized Electronic Reconnaissance consoles in the cabin.

DS2 launches the HC-130H cockpit Avionics 1 Upgrade (A1U) to address both component obsolescence and civil communications, navigation, and surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) requirements. A1U integrates its new navigation aids, radios, hazard-detection weather radar, and a digital autopilot through a Rockwell Collins’ CDU-7000 flight management system using multifunction displays identical to those in the modernized Jayhawk helicopter.

The A1U installation design and fabrication, and modification of the prototype and verification aircraft were done at the SELEX Galileo facility in Kiln, Miss. The A1U prototype entered testing early this year, and plans call for 11 production Hercules cockpit upgrades. Simultaneous with DS2, the Coast Guard launched Discrete Segment 3 to replace center wing boxes on six Hercules aircraft at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Ga. The first wing box replacement was completed in August 2012, and the balance of the Coast Guard depot repairs should be done by the end of 2017.

With modern Rolls-Royce AE2100 engines and six-bladed Dowty propellers, the HC-130J is credited with about 20 percent greater speed and 40 percent more range than the HC-130H. The Coast Guard has ordered nine HC-130Js so far with new-build HC-130Js “missionized” by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Greenville, S.C. The integrated sensor system on the HC-130J has the same electro-optical sensor and AIS used on the HC-130H and HC-144A, but the latest LRSA introduces a belly-mounted Exelis/ELTA AN/APY-11 radar with 360-degree field of regard to capture targets from any aspect. The Coast Guard radar provides synthetic aperture radar and ISAR modes that enable the operator to better define areas of interest. Seven of the nine radars on order have been delivered so far.

Unlike the Hercules, the Super Hercules has a Northrop Grumman integrated cockpit and seats the mission payload operators up on the flight deck to enhance crew coordination. Like the HC-130H, the J-model LRSA can exchange imagery and intelligence data with cooperating agencies and platforms. The HC-130H can use both classified and non-classified networks; the HC-130J links currently use only classified channels.

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As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...