Service wants at least 150 aircraft as part of upgrade expected to be modelled on Coast Guard's Deepwater programme

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is drafting a plan to modernise its ageing and loosely acquired aviation fleet with a more systematic order for at least 150 aircraft, ranging from fixed-wing patrol and interceptor types, to light and medium helicopters.

ICE delivered a report to the US Congress in early May that outlines a requirement for 143 aircraft to fulfil a growing mission portfolio, but agency officials privately say a pending draft proposal calls for an even larger commitment. The draft modernisation strategy for ICE's office of air and marine operations (AMO), which is scheduled to be unveiled from mid-year, is expected to be modelled on the US Coast Guard's comprehensive Deepwater programme. The AMO acquisition may include add-ons to existing Deepwater orders for multirole patrol aircraft and helicopters.

The AMO operates a mixed fleet of 134 aircraft, mostly older models transferred to ICE after being retired from military service. The fleet includes 16 Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions that are nearly 40 years old, 26 Cessna C550s, 24 Cessna C206/210s and 21 Beech C-12s, plus a helicopter fleet that includes 16 Sikorsky UH-60As and 23 Eurocopter AS350s.

The office co-ordinates counter-narcotics missions, with P-3s operating from South America. It also monitors drug-smuggling transit zones on the USA's southern border. Tethered aerostat systems augment its airborne radar coverage from Florida to California. Its mission also includes airspace security, which has grown in importance during the war on terrorism.

The AMO is now charged with airspace security and border protection along the northern states, and has been assigned to protect airspace security in a newly defined National Capitol Region that includes Washington DC.

The office claims its air assets provide only 60% of its requirements due to lack of funds and ageing equipment. A $373 million budget for the AMO is proposed for 2005, a $40 million increase.



Source: Flight International