Now if we could hurry up and get these pods loaded on to a B1.....
Sniper Targeting Pod Attacks From Long Standoff Ranges
By William B. Scott
10/03/2004 02:43:48 PM
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Soon, the U.S. Air Force's frontline F-16s, F-15Es and A-10s will be equipped with advanced targeting pods that see farther, display sharper, more detailed images--day or night--and enable more accurate weapons delivery than legacy systems. That means life is about to get a lot tougher for any terrorist, Iraqi insurgent or other adversary who attacks U.S. forces.
Last month, I had an opportunity to see the service's new Sniper XR extended-range targeting pod in action during an F-16 flight here. The baseline pod we carried is still being tested, but Sniper XR is on a fast track to deploy with combat forces as soon as possible.
When the system is fielded, it will give pilots significantly longer standoff ranges for both target-detection and acquisition, and more accurate weapons delivery than existing pods. Crews can then operate well outside the lethal range of surface-to-air threats, yet still strike tactical targets with deadly accuracy. And planned enhancements--such as a recently demonstrated data link--will give ground forces, forward air controllers and rear-echelon leaders the same real-time Sniper-generated views the fighter pilot is seeing on his cockpit display.
An export version of the pod, dubbed Pantera, is already flying with the Royal Norwegian Air Force. RoNAF pilots demonstrated Pantera's advantages during the most recent multinational Maple Flag exercise in Canada. Once mission planners recognized the pod's capabilities, Norwegian crews quickly found themselves assigned the most challenging targets, according to a Lockheed Martin official.
So far, 92 Sniper systems have been ordered by USAF, and Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control (LM-MFC)--which developed the advanced targeting pod--has delivered more than 30 pods under a 2001 contract. Air Force officials plan to buy as many as 522 Sniper systems for both active-duty and Air National Guard units, but have secured funding for only about 255 pods. A similar, repackaged version will be carried internally on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well (AW&ST Feb. 5, 2001, p. 60).
The heart of Sniper XR is a third-generation forward-looking infrared (Flir) array that produces a very clear, stable thermal image from impressively long ranges. It's the best targeting system Flir I've seen to date. Since 1988, I've flown several missions with Lockheed Martin's first-generation targeting pod, the Lantirn system, on the F-16, F-15E and F-14, and an "enhanced" Lantirn on a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 (AW&ST July 21, 2003, p. 44). An F-16 mission four years ago also provided a look at Northrop Grumman's Litening II pod, which sports a third-generation Flir, plus a CCD-television camera (AW&ST Aug. 21, 2000, p. 56). Technological advances and combat experience have led to several improvements in these systems, and laid the foundation for a new, more capable generation of targeting pods.
Lantirn was a 1980s technological breakthrough, opening the night to day-like combat tactics, but has several operational limitations, thanks to changing threats and different air-to-ground tactics. It is becoming difficult to support as the heavily used pods age, and is more expensive to maintain than newer systems.
Although Litening II, with its modern Flir, CCD-TV, laser marker and laser spot tracker, had more mission flexibility than the baseline Lantirn, it, too, has been eclipsed by both Sniper and Northrop Grumman's own Litening Advanced Targeting (Litening AT) system. Raytheon rounds out heated domestic and international targeting pod competitions with its Advanced Tactical Flir (ATFlir) pod, which the Navy is flying on F/A-18s. I have yet to see the Litening AT and ATFlir inflight, but both feature third-generation Flirs.
Sniper XR's Flir is based on a 3-5-micron mid-wave infrared (IR) staring focal plane array, which is the cornerstone for obtaining high-resolution images at long ranges. Lockheed Martin officials said its Santa Barbara Focalplane division developed the 512 X 640-pixel detector array, which gives Sniper/Pantera a "recognition range" 2-3 times longer than that of legacy targeting pods.
"A STARING ARRAY has higher resolution, because you have a full image rather than a swept [or line-scanned] image. Lantirn has a one-dimensional cross-scan" IR detector, said Perry L. Choate, a USAF F-16 project engineer for electro-optics systems at the 416th Flight Test Sqdn. (FLTS) here. Sniper's 3-5-micron array is less susceptible to "blooming" caused by a bomb's detonation at night or by sweeping across the Sun during the day. The array also detects IR wavelengths that penetrate smoke, dust and smog well, he added.
During my mid-afternoon flight with 416th FLTS test pilot Maj. Hank (Hog) Griffiths, the Sniper XR Flir routinely produced cockpit-display images that rivaled a black-and-white photograph. Thermal imagery was automatically enhanced by proprietary image-processing algorithms, and both optical and electronic zoom options allowed us to detect, identify, track and target fixed and moving objects at ranges up to 86 naut. mi.
Classification issues precluded my seeing several Sniper XR features, but I suspect they include a number of passive-identification capabilities. Without question, next-generation targeting systems such as Sniper XR--particularly when equipped with a data link--will play a critical role on near-term network-centric battlefields.
Our Block 50 F-16D was configured with two 370-gal. external fuel tanks, two wingtip-mounted inert AIM-120 Amraams and two underwing AIM-9 Sidewinders. A single Sniper XR pod was mounted on the right inlet chin station.
Griffiths had performed a preflight check of the pod and stowed it in "standby" for takeoff, ensuring it was immediately ready for use after we were airborne. He demonstrated Sniper's various modes and overall flexibility, then talked me through the process of operating the pod inflight. In short order, I felt comfortable alternating between black- and white-hot polarities in the infrared, switching to the TV camera when closing on a target, zooming in and out to better identify objects on the ground, and locking both point and area trackers on stationary facilities and moving vehicles.
Most of the time, we flew at altitudes of about 19,000-29,000 ft. above the ground, providing miles-long slant ranges to various targets. In the aft cockpit, I monitored the right multifunction display (MFD), which would present either pod imagery or a relayed view of what the pilot was seeing on his head-up display (HUD). Switching of pod modes, selecting polarities and zooming were accomplished hands-on via switches and cursor controls on the sidestick and throttle.
Lockheed Martin engineers designed Sniper with a 5,000-line software "integration module" that tailors a pod to a particular aircraft type. The module avoids having to alter the system's core software, allowing a particular pod to be quickly switched in the field from an F-16 to an F-15E, B-1B or A-10. "That pod will know what aircraft it's on. We don't have to change the core software; just change the integration module for the [new] aircraft type, which is far less expensive," explained John P. Schoeppner, Jr., director of international business development for LM-MFC. Consequently, existing stick and throttle switches had been reprogrammed to control the Sniper XR pod.
Examples of Sniper capabilities demonstrated during the flight included:
*Detecting trucks, trailers and tanks at PB-11, one of several targets in the Edwards Precision Impact Range Area. From a 22-naut.-mi. slant range, Griffiths selected "area track" and autofocus to produce an IR image encompassing several vehicles scattered across a large circle cleared of brush and other vegetation. Zooming in (electronically, not optically) reduced resolution, but the larger image aided identification of the vehicles. Still, objects were sharply defined, and grooves in the dirt were clearly visible. In black-hot polarity, the vehicles appeared white (cooler) against the darker dirt. Griffiths locked the pod's point-tracker onto a truck body, noting that the box symbol remained around the selected vehicle as we maneuvered. He could easily slew the box to another vehicle, then lock onto it. I observed that the point-tracker "really locks it up rock-solid."
At 14 naut. mi., a 4X zoom made the image fuzzier, but vehicle types were still easily distinguished. Cloud shadows moving across PB-11 made it difficult to spot dark-colored vehicles in white-hot (infrared) polarity or the TV mode (visible light). But switching to IR black-hot made the same vehicles appear as bright white objects against a dark background, simplifying lock-on and point-tracking tasks.
*Selecting a new navigation steerpoint, and having the pod immediately point to it. Our next target was a domed radar site near Boron, Calif. From a 13-naut.-mi. slant range, Griffiths selected area track to stabilize the pod's look-angle, and placed open-center crosshair cursors over the radar site's golf ball-like dome. He selected the narrow field-of-view (FOV) to enlarge the dome's infrared image, refined the crosshair position in black-hot polarity and performed a quick autofocus to improve image quality--about a 2-3-sec. process.
"I'd rate the workload as comparable or almost better [than that of Lantirn], because (Sniper) has the autofocus and Flir-calibration features. I'm not messing with a lot of different things," Griffiths said. The dome and its supporting block building were easily distinguished from other structures in Flir images at 10-naut.-mi. range. At 8.5 naut. mi., the pilot switched to a TV camera view and zoomed closer, producing a striking image of the segmented radar dome that almost filled my MFD screen.
*Directing the pod to look at a men's prison 16.6 naut. mi. away, near California City, and switching to IR black-hot/narrow FOV/area-track. Griffiths commented that there were no prisoners on the baseball field, but the field's bases, a fence and its support posts, and tall light stanchions were clearly visible in thermal images. Air conditioner units mounted on rooftops appeared as small, easily tracked blocks. At 10 naut. mi., Griffiths quipped, "I could bomb one air conditioner, if I wanted to." He locked onto a guard's pickup truck at 7.5 naut. mi. as the vehicle slowly patrolled the fence perimeter, then traversed a crowded parking lot.
Griffiths fired the pod's laser rangefinder and noted that we were actually 6.7 naut. mi. from the guard's truck. The eye-safe, 1.57-micron training beam has about the same standoff range as the system's "combat laser," which operates at 1.064 microns for compatibility with laser-guided weapons. When the diode-pumped laser was firing, a flashing "L" appeared in the lower center of my MFD screen, alongside "IR POINT T." The message indicated we were viewing an infrared image, and were point-tracking the target being lased.
I commented, "I've never seen a point-tracker that was so solid," not jittering or wandering during maneuvers or when we encountered turbulence. Image and tracker stability is attributed to several Sniper XR features: mounting the optics bench on six mechanical isolators, and balancing the pod's mass around the forward mounting lug to preclude a springboard effect at the front end. The wedge-shaped, sapphire-windowed nose section only rolls, while optical equipment inside will pitch up and down. That design avoids a ball-type head and cavities that can cause airflow-induced acoustic vibrations, particularly at supersonic speeds. Finally, smoothing algorithms help eliminate any residual jitter in an image.
From 3.2 naut. mi. and an 18,261-ft. radar altitude, a 2X-zoomed TV image revealed boxed wheelchair symbols in handicapped parking zones--and that the guard's truck bed was empty.
*Locking onto a sliver of the Moon barely visible in the clear afternoon sky. Using the pod's inertial-rate-tracking feature and altering IR polarity, Griffiths was able to lock onto an edge of the Moon and zoom closer until the crescent's arc filled half of my MFD screen. An IR image revealed multiple craters, and was of better quality than that from the TV camera.
*Tracking another F-16, first with our radar, then handing off to the Sniper XR. Griffiths had some difficulty locating the other fighter in IR white-hot/wide FOV, but finally locked the point-tracker onto the bright-white engine tailpipe. Switching from IR tracking to TV tracking caused the system to break-lock--an anomaly that will be corrected as part of several air-to-air enhancements planned for the next Sniper software update. It also will give the pod a multi-target tracking capability. Griffiths subsequently locked-onto a Boeing 737 commercial transport at 27 naut. mi. The airframe type was easily determined, but we couldn't read the airline name in either IR or TV modes.
*Locating aircraft hulks nestled in simulated revetments at China Lake's Superior Valley tactical airfield. Bladed-off dirt "runways" and other features were detected and area-tracked in IR white-hot at 35 naut. mi. During several aileron rolls, the pod stayed locked-onto the mock airfield until its field-of-view was "masked" by our F-16's structure or tanks. Pilots are warned of imminent pod masking by flashing cursors and an "M" that appears on the HUD and head-down MFD. A small white rectangle on the MFD always shows where the pod is looking in relation to the flight path, which helps a pilot maneuver properly to "unmask" the pod. Sniper's tracking algorithm ensured the pod was still pointed at the same area of the airfield when an image reappeared.
From 22 naut. mi., I could tell which revetments contained aircraft, and a single airframe could be seen on a taxiway. Locking-on the latter and alternating among IR white- and black-hot, wide and narrow FOV and the TV camera, and zooming in and out, we identified the aircraft as an F-4 Phantom from a 12-naut.-mi. range. At 8 naut. mi., I could see a break in the F-4's wing (thanks to a deflected aileron) in IR white-hot, which depicted the derelict fighter as a dark object.
*Tracking trucks and cars along Highway 58 north of Edwards AFB. When Griffiths had trouble locking-on and tracking vehicles, he noted that a "delta-T" figure on the left side of our MFDs was reading 20C, indicating that the pod required a Flir calibration. He selected "standby" mode, performed the self-calibration and had the pod back in operation less than 30 sec. later.
With Griffiths coaching me through stick-and-throttle switch manipulation, I was able to slew the pod's crosshairs over tractor-trailer rigs, then lock-on and track the trucks, zooming in and out to refine both Flir and TV images. In IR black-hot, the pod masked briefly, but relocated the truck after we reversed course, aimed where it thought the target should be by then. It did the same when a locked-up vehicle crossed under an overpass.
It took some practice to slew the pod's line of sight to a truck via the throttle's Cursor Enable switch, using my left thumb, then enabling point-track via the throttle's Target Management Switch (TMS). But Griffiths said I adapted quickly, and I was soon able to switch among the pod's features at will.
Pilots learning to use Sniper on the F-16 realize that existing switches on their throttle and control stick have to perform multiple functions nowadays. As a Sniper control, for example, the TMS might be single- or double-"clicked" left, right, forward or aft to effect pod changes.
"The F-16's no longer a day-VFR fighter," Griffiths said. "We're hanging so many different things on this airplane that aircraft technology needs to catch up. We're continually modifying the airplane."
At one point the pilot climbed to about 30,000 ft. MSL, selected a navigation steerpoint and noted that the Sniper pod was aimed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). In IR black-hot, 2X zoom, area track mode, aircraft 86 naut. mi. away were visible as white spots taking off from LAX runways. Switching to TV mode produced a murky image, our view obscured by smog. Small clouds between us and the airport occasionally forced me to break lock and select "cursor zero," which pointed the pod at the lat-long coordinates for LAX and brought the airport back into view.
I didn't see them demonstrated, but the pod also has a laser spot tracker and a laser marker (sometimes called an IR pointer), which greatly improve target coordination with wingmen and ground troops. These, a number of other features and those I observed inflight, will make Sniper XR a very popular tool among fighter pilots. It significantly improves their ability to find and engage the enemy who once found sanctuary in mountains, jungles and the dark of night. Those days are gone.
Can I get the source for this? Guys in my company would be interested in reading this.
It's on the front page of www.aviationow.com, check it out.
Believe me, we're trying. We're looking at the Snoper XR and the Litening AT...each has it's benefits, each has it's weaknesses. Problems right now are
1) The Start Treaty! Hanging things on the external hardpoints at this moment is a no-no.
2) Jump starting the acquision bureaucracy. It'll take 3-5 years.