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CBP set to deploy new surveillance aircraft

CBP's MEA

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is set to deploy the first of 30 new patrol aircraft that bristle with passive and active surveillance systems capable of supporting a variety of land and water-based operations.

The CBP’s new King Air 350, twin engine Multi-role Enforcement Aircraft (MEA) will replace an aging fleet of surveillance aircraft, providing the Department of Homeland Security with new capabilities to patrol the skies along the nation’s land and maritime borders.

The first MEA is slated for deployment to the southwest border in mid-June 2011 to undergo initial test and evaluation and to conduct missions aimed at enhancing ground tactics and enforcement coordination, said CBP in a June 10 statement.

The aircraft is built by Hawker Beechcraft Corp and modified for CBP missions by the Sierra Nevada factory in Hagerstown, MD. CBP could eventually have up to 50 MEAs patrolling the land and maritime borders, said the agency.

Designed to be a truly multi-role aircraft, the MEA is equipped with a sophisticated array of active and passive sensors, technical collection equipment, and satellite communications capabilities that can be deployed for ground interdiction operations, air-to-air intercept operations, and medium-range maritime patrols, it said.

The aircraft is operated by a crew of four, including two sensor operators who operate the on-board equipment and coordinate the information flow to the ground. The aircraft can cruise at 270 knots  -  or close to 400 mph  -  with a maximum ceiling of 35 thousand feet, and can be easily reconfigured to carry special mission teams or a modest amount of cargo, said the agency.

The CBP design incorporates a wide-area marine search radar with air search capability and a ground moving target indicator. The nose of the aircraft was extended to provide a wide field of view for its high-resolution, electro-optical/infrared sensor (day/night camera). The aircraft can send targeting information through Ku-Band satellite communications, and it employs the latest data processing software capable of handling hundreds of targets simultaneously.

The CBP MEA was acquired by the Office of Air and Marine as a component of its decade-long aircraft recapitalization program, and was purchased to replace three types of aged, less capable and unsupportable twin engine patrol aircraft that were originally obtained through loans from the Department of Defense. It is considered an “operator’s aircraft” in that CBP’s Air and Marine pilots and sensor operators actively participated in every aspect of the acquisition.

The MEA is capable of flying six-hour missions over the land or maritime borders, and can also be deployed to “hot spots” where multi-sensor patrols assist both ground and marine agents in apprehending smugglers and potential terrorists. The MEA will be a highly effective addition to CBP in the Gulf of Mexico, Eastern Pacific, Great Lakes region, and other coastal approaches to the country, said CBP.