Pilots in Theater Clamoring for ATFLIR Pods
According to a recent report in the Virginian Pilot, commanding officer Cmdr. Norm Weakland, of the “Gunslingers” of Strike Fighter Squadron 105 says that using the pods has saved untold American lives. The targeting pods’ steadiness, surveillance range, and versatility are allowing Navy and Marine Corps pilots to become involved in close-quarters urban combat without killing friendly troops. Sometimes, F/A-18 aircraft are even being deployed in explicit surveillance roles, with attack as a secondary mission.
Some attacks were carried out with friendly forces under ambush and within 150 yards of the target point. This complicates the pilot’s choices, from the type of weapons to deliver, to potential obstruction of the target, to understanding the tactics of the ground forces and what they’re likely to do next.
Capt. Pat “Irish” Rainey, commander of Air Wing Three, just back from deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, remarked: “You could see where they had laid their weapons on one side of the building. And you could see how many guys were up on the roof; who was crouching down; who was sitting behind a wall.” Rainey noted that with the ATFLIR pods, pilots could safely see crisp, clear subjects from nearly 4 miles up and 30 miles away. An infrared targeting system his planes used magnified an image in the night by 30 times. In daylight a television camera can magnify it by 60 times. These capabilities are 3-5x better than previous FLIR systems, and it will also provide GPS coordinates to precision weapons such as JSOW and JDAM.
“You were not allowed to drop any weapon off your airplane unless both air crew, whether a Tomcat or an F-18, or a pair of them, were in complete agreement and both your systems agreed with what you were looking at and both of you had focused situational awareness as to who was who on the ground,” Rainey said.
Jack Dorsey’s Virginia Pilot article “Wing-mounted technology gives jet pilots crisp view of battlefields” has a number of excellent observations and information concerning the pilots’ experiences, the critical importance of familiarity and communication with ground troops, and even the possibility of unobtrusive ATFLIR training over American cities are all discussed. Note, however, that ATFLIR pods are usually mounted on one of the 2 MRAAM slots alongside the Hornet’s engine air intakes, rather than on the plane’s wings.
These capabilities and experiences are leading to calls for more ATFLIR pods, replace 3 previous pods carried on the F/A-18: the TFLIR, the navigation FLIR and the laser designator tracker. Aboard the Truman, the squadrons had to rotate 7 of the Raytheon-made pods among the 33 Hornet aircraft. If an airplane experienced a mechanical failure, crews had just 45 minutes to take it off one pane and put in on the next. This is apparently not ideal for the pod.
In December 2003, Raytheon was awarded a $298.2 million contract to produce 88 ATFLIR units, and a March 2005 modification added $275 million for 80 more units. The company plans to increase production from 4 per month to 6 per month in 2006, with an ultimate goal of increasing production to 12 per month until the Navy can equip all 574 of its F/A-18 C/D Hornets and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets – or until it decides to halt production.
Future upgrade plans include giving ATFLIRs the ability to transfer data via the aircraft at high speed to ground fire controllers, or back to a ship, allowing the ground force to see streaming video direct from the cockpit.