Ocean Sentry

Mar 15, 2009

The U.S. Coast Guard is the smallest of the seven uniformed services in the United States. Involved in maritime law, mariner assistance, and search and rescue, its mandate is to protect the public, the environment, and American economic and security interests. The USCG claims jurisdiction over all maritime regions including international waters and U.S. coasts, ports, and inland waterways.

Like many coast guard organizations throughout the world, the USCG has struggled with an aging fleet and has traditionally been required to exist on a tight budget. During the 1990s it became obvious that CG assets and capabilities were antiquated and in danger of becoming obsolete. In 1993 the Commandant’s Office of Operations announced that USCG a much-needed a long-term strategy to recapitalize its inventory of 93 cutters, 206 aircraft, and supporting systems.

The massive Deepwater program, an unprecedented effort to upgrade virtually all of the service’s fleet, was initiated in 2002. The Integrated Deepwater System Program (IDS Program or Deepwater) is a 25-year program to recapitalize the United States Coast Guard’s equipment, including aircraft, ships, and their underlying logistics, command and control systems. Because the scale of the $24 billion project exceeds anything done by the USCG before, and owing to its unique nature, Deepwater has attracted controversy.

The media has focused on funding and management issues as well as structural flaws that have been found in some of the coast guard’s upgraded cutters. Pundits argue that the primary contractors for Deepwater, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, were inappropriately tasked with making decisions on behalf of the United States Coast Guard – the contracting team advising the USCG on what to buy, choosing the parts providers, and serving as prime builder.

Despite these setbacks, Deepwater is witnessing many undeniable successes. The coast guard’s aviation recapitalization efforts continue to demonstrate success as the HC144A Ocean Sentry is phased in to replace an aging fleet of HU25 Falcon Guardians. The HC144A is a new twin-turbo-prop maritime patrol aircraft selected by the U.S. Coast Guard to become the cornerstone of their fleet. These medium range surveillance aircraft are built by EADS CASA in Seville, Spain and transported upon completion to the coast guard’s aviation training centre in Mobile, Alabama. The first Ocean Sentry was delivered to the USCG in December 2006.

There are now five of the new aircraft based out of Mobile where they are undergoing testing and analysis. Commander Doug Nash who overseas pilot training for the United States Coast Guard is delighted with the Ocean Sentry, which will be the eyes of the coast guard fleet. In his opinion, one of the most impressive features of the aircraft is its ability to give pilots and search and rescue (SAR) personnel an unobstructed view of what is occurring below them. “One thing that the Ocean Sentry can do that the Falcon can’t is it has the capability to let everyone look at the big picture out the back,” explains Nash. “The bubble windows at the back give a 360° view of the world. With the old window you would say ‘I think I saw something go by,’ but often you really couldn’t tell. Now our pilots can be sure and keep it in sight much longer or as long as they need to.”

In comparing the Ocean Sentry to the older Falcon Guardian, Nash emphasizes a number of key points. While the Falcon’s jet engines might make it quicker in getting to the scene of a disaster the more modern Ocean Sentry offers far-superior range and endurance. Indeed, while Falcons are limited to about three hours in the air and 1,200 miles, the Ocean Sentry is capable of flying more than seven hours with a range of 2,000 miles. From a search and rescue perspective the Falcon is significantly faster, but the Sentry can go farther and stay on the scene longer.

Many of the Ocean Sentry’s assets were demonstrated when the new plane participated in its first actual search and rescue mission. An Ocean Sentry was unexpectedly called into action when, on 20 February 2008, two U.S. Air Force jets collided over the Gulf of Mexico. When the coast guard picked up the distress call, they diverted an HC144A Ocean Sentry, which had been on a routine practice flight from the aviation training centre in Mobile, ­Alabama. According to Nash, the Sentry arrived first on scene to the crash area, assuming the crucial role of on scene coordinator. The Sentry and its crew became responsible for leading the activity of several SAR assets, including the Coast Guard, defense department and civilian partners.

The untried aircraft and its coast guard team were indispensable throughout the mission as they located the first pilot and directed his recovery. Both fighter pilots involved in the collision were eventually lifted from the sea; tragically only one was recovered alive. The HC144A’s ability to sprint to the scene and then fly slowly through a search pattern were important factors in the rescue effort. The aircraft’s long endurance enabled the aircrew to coordinate the search and rescue at slow speed, ensuring excellent visual coverage of the crash area. As anticipated, the plane’s bubble observer windows were important design features in that they allowed the aircrew to more thoroughly inspect the area. They were even able to view the ocean directly below the aircraft, which is impossible to do from the coast guard’s older Falcon Guardians.

This emergency allowed the coast guard to evaluate the Ocean Sentry’s ­mission systems package in a real life SAR scenario. The Sentry’s state-of-the-art ­electronics includes radar, an electro-optical/infrared sensor and a communications suite. “The new system pallet takes a lot of the search out of search and rescue,” states Nash. “We have a piece of equipment that is able to identify what boats are in our vicinity.”

Although it s still undergoing integration and operational testing, the Sentry’s onboard equipment was able to collect Automatic Identification System (AIS) data during the incident. This data in turn helped the coast guard crew identify and communicate with civilian vessels in the area, including a civilian fishing vessel involved in the search for the downed airmen. AIS provided positive identification of assisting vessels and eliminated the ­confusion often associated with hailing an unknown craft.

During the summer of 2008, the high-tech Ocean Sentry had a second unscheduled opportunity to prove itself during search and rescue operations. The HC144A was selected by a top coast guard officer to conduct an overflight of the Midwest floods. Rear-Admiral Joel Whitehead boarded an HC144A accompanied by key coast guard and maritime industry officials. Whitehead specifically selected the Ocean Sentry for the flight, which focused on ­central and eastern Iowa and northeast Missouri. He believed the aircraft’s longer ranges, ability to fly slower, and the passenger capacity would best suit the needs of the mission.

The first goal of the mission was to assist Whitehead in determining where coast guard response and recovery resources should be utilized in ongoing flood efforts. The second objective was to share information with the maritime industry on the economic impact from the floods. High water levels have a tendency to cause more vessel groundings, and aerial assessments can help the coast guard predict future vessel casualties. “They wanted to take a look at what scene was being painted and what hazards would be forthcoming,” says Nash. “It allowed all the players to get a bird’s eye view.”

Meanwhile, a formal operational test and evaluation (OT&E) of the new aircraft remains on schedule. The first phase, test planning and preparation, was successfully completed in June 2008. Phase two (data collection) is currently proceeding well, says Commander Nash. The Ocean Sentry is participating in joint exercises with the U.S. Navy, and data from the aircraft’s system pallet is recorded throughout such exercises for detailed examination and analysis.

At a time when the United States Coast Guard is facing increased responsibilities, the U.S. military perceives modernized additions to the fleet, particularly the Ocean Sentry, as crucial.

Since 9/11, the USCG has joined the Department of Homeland Security. It has also assumed new port and chemical plant security roles. Fortunately, the HC144A Ocean Sentry is scheduled to enter operational service with the United States Coast Guard at some point in 2009. Eventually the coast guard plans to have a fleet of 36 mission capable HC144As for law enforcement and search and rescue missions.

Jacqueline Chartier specializes in military history and current affairs.
All Photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009