US Customs and Border Protection P-3 Orion Operations

By Stephanie Stinn Posted 5 November 2011

What do drugs and Volkswagen Beetles have to do with the P-3 Orion? Tons, literally speaking.

From October 2010 to September 2011, P-3 Orion crews from US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine, or CBP OAM, stopped more than 150,000 pounds of drugs with a value equal to more than $1.8 billion—and with a weight equal to seventy-five Volkswagen Beetles—from entering the United States.

In May 2011, CBP P-3 crews assisted in a record-setting disruption of more than $30 million worth of cocaine in one day. The P-3 crews observed approximately forty bales of cocaine on board a vessel northeast of Nicaragua. The crews alerted a nearby US Coast Guard cutter and Honduran law enforcement to the inflatable boat and its contraband cargo. CBP P-3 crews observed the vessel dump six bales of cocaine before it was intercepted by a Honduran vessel. In the end, thirty-six bales containing 2,420 pounds of cocaine were apprehended on that one day.

Nicaragua and drug trafficking may seem like distant situations for many, but these seizures have a larger translation that applies directly to everyday life.

If these drugs hadn’t been stopped off the coast of Central America, the cargo would have been systematically smuggled into the US. From there, the drugs would have been broken down in quantity and sold. These are the same drugs that led to the arrest of 1.6 million people in 2010 as reported by the FBI. These are the same drugs that prompted the US government to spend more than $15 billion in 2010 on the war on drugs—or roughly $500 per second—according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Drugs are a very real and expensive problem in the United States. And they are a problem that isn’t going away.

While the drug war isn’t an easy one to fight, the CBP’s P-3 crews are doing what they can to break this process at the source—literally. The crews rely on what is called a defense and depth strategy that interdicts large-scale drug loads at their countries of origin, which are largely in South America. Once a drug load successfully leaves its point of origin, a drug runner delivers it to Central America and Mexico, where it is broken down into smaller loads that are easier to smuggle into the US.

“We start hitting the drugs at the source zone and keep hitting them in the transit zone. Hopefully, by the time they reach the arrival zone, we’ve picked up a good percentage of them,” said Lothar Eckardt, director of the CBP OAM P-3 Operations Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“In many ways, drug trafficking is still a rudimentary operation with some smugglers opting to transport the contraband on such basic vessels as inflatable boats. Other smugglers are extremely progressive—investing large sums of money into covert, sophisticated semi-submersibles, and even moving toward submarines to traffic drugs,” Eckardt noted.

Transportation methods may vary, but there is one constant in the equation: the CBP P-3 Orion crews remain the biggest obstacles in a drug smuggler’s path. “They know we are there. They see us,” Eckardt added. “We have footage of them pointing at us and dumping their load, trying to get away.”

When a CBP P-3 crew deploys on a drug interdiction mission—or on any of its missions, actually—it is usually of long duration. Typical missions range anywhere from eight to ten hours, with some lasting as long as sixteen hours. Crews are flying at varying levels, tracking numerous vessels and combating various natural conditions. A controlled and predictable situation is rare. Missions are difficult and time consuming. For CBP, the P-3 offers flexibility and the ability to stay on station for long periods of time.

“The great thing about the P-3 is that some of those flights take us out into very remote parts of the ocean where there’s nobody around. We want Old Reliable to take us out there to do our mission and bring us back home again,” Eckardt said. “Time and time again, the P-3 has proven to be that Old Reliable.”

Keeping Old Reliable Reliable
Eckardt has flown CBP P-3s for the past decade. Prior to that, he logged seventeen years as a US Navy P-3 pilot and almost nine years as a P-3 acoustic operator prior to flight school.

Together, Eckardt and the P-3 have done pretty much everything from chasing Russian attack subs, to interdicting drug smugglers, to providing reconnaissance for US security.

“I’ve wanted to fly since I was a little kid. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Eckardt said. “This job allows me to do that. And this plane allows me to do that.” When he retired from the Navy, Eckardt said it was a logical step to stay in P-3s in CBP. He is, after all, a self-described P-3 guy.

CBP operates sixteen P-3 Orions at two locations, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida, giving the fleets coverage and access to distinct geographic regions for ideal mission operability. The first P-3 was acquired in 1984, a former US Navy P-3A.

The CBP operates two types of P-3s: eight P-3 Airborne Early Warning, or AEW, and eight P-3 Long Range Tracker, or LRT, aircraft. The AEWs provide wide area search and increased command, control, and communications capabilities. These P-3s are designed to intercept and track airborne smuggling threats. They are differentiated from the LRTs by their distinctive radomes. Called Domes, the AEW crews detect and track air and sea surface targets. When a target is located, the AEW aircraft serves as the command and control platform. The LRT aircraft, often referred to as Slicks, are used to intercept, identify, and track suspect targets. When both an AEW and LRT are flown together, it is known as a Double Eagle.

A majority of CBP missions are flown in support of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, or JIATF-South, a multiservice, multiagency task force based at NAS Key West, Fla., that focuses on anti-drug, anti-terrorism, and trafficking efforts.

While drug interdictions account for a large portion of the CBP P-3 fleet’s missions, these Orions support an array of other operations. The CBP P-3 crews have cleared domestic airspace for the president or vice president during travel; monitored airspace during such events as the Olympics and the Super Bowl to track any possible terrorist threats; acted as communications hubs during such pivotal events as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster; guarded nuclear power stations; hunted pirates; and intercepted illegal immigration trafficking activities.

The P-3 crew utilizes a full motion video feed called BigPipe to relay information in real time to other federal, state and local agencies, providing decision makers the capability to make damage assessments and fiscally sound decisions during disaster relief efforts.

The mission flexibility of the P-3 Orion is a hallmark. Built by the then-Lockheed California Company in Burbank, California, the Orion was first entered US Navy service beginning in 1962. A total of 755 Orions were produced, which includes 107 examples built in Japan by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Today, 435 P-3s are flown by twenty-one operators in seventeen nations.

The P-3 earned its stripes supporting such historical milestones as the Cuban Mission Crisis in 1962 and submarine hunting throughout the Cold War. As customer needs shifted, Orion operators began to utilize the aircraft for other missions, such as peacekeeping and surveillance roles—in large part the result of continuously updated electronic surveillance suites.

While the Orion has adapted well to its current role, it isn’t immune to the impacts of time. The CBP P-3 fleet is more than forty years old. It has logged well more than 200,000 flight hours, all without a mishap. And the CBP P-3 fleet was starting to show signs of age.

Same P-3, Only Better
Rather than replace its aircraft, CBP decided to keep its P-3 fleet flying through the P-3 Mid-Life Upgrade, or MLU, program. Lockheed Martin began this program in 2008 with the Royal Norwegian Air Force as the launch customer. CBP is the second customer and is currently on contract to have twelve of its P-3s go through the MLU program. MLU provides replacement structural parts that will keep the aircraft flying for up to another twenty-five years of service.

The P-3 MLU program consists of a life extension kit replacing the aircraft outer wings, center wing lower section, and horizontal stabilizer with new production components. The MLU removes all current P-3 airframe flight restrictions and provides 15,000 additional flight hours, enhancing capability through cost-effectiveness.

The design replaces all fatigue life-limiting structures on the aircraft with enhanced design components and new, improved corrosion-resistant materials that greatly reduce the cost of ownership over the aircraft’s extended service life.

P-3 wings are assembled at the Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta, Georgia, and installed on CBP aircraft at the company’s facility in Greenville, South Carolina. In addition to Norway and CBP, Lockheed Martin is on contract to provide thirty-one MLU kits to the US Navy, ten for Canada’s CP-140 Aurora fleet, and twelve to Taiwan.

To date, MLU kits have been installed on three CBP P-3s. The third aircraft is having its electronic systems repopulated and going through scheduled phased maintenance prior to returning to the fleet by late 2011. Typically, P-3s undergoing the MLU process are out of the CBP fleet for twelve months.

When the aircraft are returned, CBP crews put them right to work. “The whole idea of the MLU is to keep it flying like a P-3. What you first notice is that it flies like a new airplane. Let’s face it; some of these airplanes are forty years old with thousands of hours on them. Now, with new wings on them, they fly like a new airplane, straight and level,” Eckardt said.

“The P-3 is an airplane with a new life,” Eckardt said. “CBP is very happy to be flying it and to be a part of this renovation.”


Stephanie Stinn is a program communicator for Lockheed Martin.