With increasing activity by criminal gangs across borders, the mission of patrolling them has been increasing in recent years throughout Latin America. The challenge is to be able to have economic aircraft, but at the same time with good endurance capabilities and the ability to carry all the necessary mission equipment.
By Santiago Rivas
Latin America is a vast region with many inaccessible areas, of mountains, jungles and deserts, where controlling the illegal movement of people and goods becomes extremely difficult. Control from the air has long been one of the best tools to uncover illegal activities and guide ground forces to capture criminals, as well as, in some cases, interception of aircraft on irregular flights.
Currently, the forces use different types of aircraft for the mission, almost always light ones, ranging from small planes to medium-capacity twin-engine aircraft.
When it comes to patrolling missions, there are several important aspects to keep in mind. While the operating cost per flight hour is significant, it must be balanced with the other factors. An aircraft that is too small is inexpensive, but generally offers little endurance, poor ability to carry sensors and becomes uncomfortable for the crew on long flights.
Endurance is an important factor, not only because it allows covering large spaces in borders that are already long in general, but in many cases there are not many airports to operate either, which means the need to have fuel for go from the base to the area of operation and return, also having enough fuel to be able to patrol as long as possible.
Another point is the payload, to be able to carry enough and powerful sensors, especially a surveillance radar and a gyro-stabilized turret for optical sensors (for day and night vision, infrared, laser pointers, rangefinders or target markers), but sensors can also be added to detect emissions from communications or radar equipment, among others. In radars, a larger antenna implies greater detection capacity and, therefore, a greater covered area, which makes the task more efficient.
The other important factor is the cabin space. Not only to be able to carry a greater number of consoles and thus be able to operate all the sensors, but on flights that can last for more than five hours and, in many cases, up to almost ten hours, the crew needs to be comfortable. For this reason, a spacious cabin, with enough height to walk in relative comfort, bathroom and the possibility of being able to eat comfortably, become essential. Added to this is a good soundproofing, air conditioning and heating to operate in hot or cold climates and a stable aircraft that allows a comfortable flight.
As with any patrol aircraft, a high wing configuration without struts is always ideal, as it allows greater visibility, as well as the possibility of carrying bubble windows that allow viewing downwards, forward and behind, covering a greater surface.
Aircraft in operation
Today, due to budget capabilities and availability, many air and security forces employ light aircraft, like Cessna 182, 206, 210, or similar, to perform border patrol duties. In many cases, the aircraft were captured from criminals and in others they were originally purchased for liaison or training missions, but necessity led to their use in these missions.
Although they are low in operating cost, their capacity is very limited, since they do not carry sensors of any kind in almost all cases, they have little endurance and comfort and it is not recommended to use them on mountainous (operations on high runways) or jungle areas.
Also, in some cases light attack and training aircraft have been used for this job too, as for example Embraer Tucano, Super Tucano, Cessna A-37, Schweizer SA2-37A Vampiro or IA-58 Pucará, which, although in some cases they can carry surveillance pods, they are not comfortable for very long missions, due to its small cabin with little space, while their ability to carry sensors is limited.
In other cases, as in Colombia, Cessna Grand Caravans are used for patrolling, a little more comfortable and with greater capacity for sensors than the previous ones, although without being able to carry surveillance radar, with limited endurance and, being single-engine, not recommended for operations over jungle areas or over the sea, where there is no chance of landing in case of engine failure.
An interesting option, in terms of light aircraft, is the one adopted by the Dominican Republic with its Tecnam P2006T, which has the advantage of being twin-engine, but with a fuel consumption of only 70 liters per hour, which makes it very economical.
In Colombia, Turbo Commander and Cessna Citation aircraft are also used, the former with a fairly limited load capacity, although with the advantage of being twin-engine and the latter, ideal for electronic surveillance operations.
Thus, in general, light transport aircraft, with between 1000 and 2000 kilos of payload capacity and twin engines, have been shown to be the best options.
However, even the fleet of this type of specialized aircraft is still in quantities far below what is necessary for effective border control. Currently it is the Beechcraft Super King Air the most used model in this size, with different modifications to incorporate sensors, as used by the Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian Air Forces and the Colombian Army.
For its part, in both Brazil and Mexico the Embraer 145 intelligence and early warning version is used, in the case of Brazil the electronic intelligence 145 SR and the early warning AEW versions and in Mexico the maritime patrol MP and the AEW. In this case, it is a larger platform, with more powerful sensors and the possibility of covering large areas given its speed, but it is only useful for electronic surveillance and not visual.
In other cases, such as the Colombian Police or the Venezuelan Military Aviation, older platforms are still used, such as the Fairchild Metro.
The panorama today shows a lack of aircraft in most countries, with only cases such as those in Colombia and Mexico being able to cover a large part of their borders or sensitive areas where patrols are necessary.
The increase in illegal activities implies an increasing demand for this type of platform and today there are several interesting options.
Among the small planes, the Tecnam 2006T and the Vulcanair P-68 Observer 2 are shown as among of the most interesting, the first already in use by the Dominican Republic and the second by the Chilean Navy for coastal patrol missions. Both have the advantage of being twin-engine with a high wing and good visibility, low fuel consumption and an ability to carry some sensors, although this is limited, as well as space for the crew. They can be a good alternative for small countries that do not require missions lasting many hours.
In larger aircraft, the Super King Air is still an option, especially for electronic intelligence missions where flying at high altitudes is required, since it has a pressurized cabin, but for visual search missions it has the disadvantage of its low wing. In addition, its cabin is small for very long missions and with multiple operators. An advantage is that it is a very widely known model in the region.
In Europe, the Dornier 228 is an aircraft often used for this kind of mission. It is not yet used in for this type of mission in the region, but is used in countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, Germany where the border guard employs aircraft equipped with surveillance radar, side looking airborne radar (SLAR) and sensor turret. It’s got one of the longest endurances, can fly fast and slow and its high wing aircraft without struts and therefore a more spacious cabin. Also, the shape of the cabin is ideal for all mission equipment, in order to spot illegal activities easily.
For its part, Viking Air offers the Guardian 400, a patrol version of the DHC-6-400 Twin Otter that offers the possibility of doing it with the Leonardo Osprey 30 radar, gyro-stabilized turret for sensors and other equipment, although so far this version has not been adopted by any operator.
Sikorsky, at the same time, offers a new version of the PZL M-28 05 for border patrol missions, today in use by the Polish Border Guard, with surveillance radar and gyro-stabilized sensor turret, among other equipment. The aircraft has a spacious cabin, although its speed and range are more limited.
This scenario implies that the range of aircraft available to meet demand is interesting and with many alternatives in terms of cargo capacity, cabin space, speed, endurance and other aspects, also with a wide range of acquisition and operating costs.