Last year, the Air Force designated the F-15E as the first fighter to be outfitted with the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system, probably at the beginning of 1989. The dual-role fighter is a natural for LANTIRN. The system will come in mighty handy on those deep, difficult interdiction missions—one aircraft at a time, in most cases—and the F-15E’s two-man crew will be able to assimilate the work load associated with LANTIRN more easily than would a single pilot.
Mounted underneath the fuselage, LANTIRN’s targeting and navigation pods will almost certainly have some effect on the F-15E’s flight dynamics—especially when the fighter flies fast and low en route to land targets.
“Accommodating the pods may be a challenge, but the fighter was designed with LANTIRN in mind, and we don’t see any problems at this point,” says Col. Roy B. Marshall III, chief of the projects I division of Aeronautical Systems Division’s F-15 program office.
LANTIRN is also slated for deployment on 300 F-16Cs. Late last summer, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch disclosed plans to put a derivative of LANTIRN on B-1B bombers, too, “a couple of years from now.”
Col. James A. Fain, Jr., director of ASD’s strike systems program office, claims that LANTIRN will enable USAF’s ground-attack aircraft to “fight around the clock and exercise our airpower in about any battle we choose.”
“Our ability to fight at night will have the same radical impact on tactical conventional warfare as did the tank, the machine gun, and the parachute,” he continues.
Colonel Fain flew fighters in the Vietnam War. Recalling the enemy’s penchant for moving supplies and reinforcements under cover of darkness, he claims that “if we’d had LANTIRN, we’d have stopped them dead.”
Having brought LANTIRN through some tough times to the point of full-scale production, Colonel Fain describes it as “a very complex system that requires state-of-the-art computers and electronics, and it has to be built with high reliability if it’s going to withstand the shake, rattle, and roll it’ll get on high-performance fighters. There’s no reason why we can’t do this. The components we’re using are now very reliable.”
The system’s navigation pod is less technologically complex than its targeting pod. It embodies a wide-field-of-view FLIR (forward-looking infrared) sensor and a terrain-following radar. Its HUD (head-up display) is the pilot’s “night window,” showing him nighttime scenes outside of his aircraft as if they were actually visible to him in the adequate light of early evening, with twilight just beginning to gather.
The targeting pod is a technological and engineering masterwork. It contains a stabilization system, a FLIR system with wide and narrow fields of view, a laser designator/ ranger, a dual-mode automatic target tracker, an automatic infrared-guidance handoff system for the Maverick missile, and sufficient space and the electrical fittings for an automatic target-recognition system yet to be incorporated.
Both pods are integrated with aircraft flight controls, cockpit displays, and fire controls for both guided and unguided weapons.
The navpod never had serious technical problems, but its reliability left something to be desired in the early days of its development. It is now considered sturdily reliable, and its full production was approved late last year.
USAF plans to produce 700 nay-pods. The first of them is scheduled for delivery to the Air Force this coming April.
Testing the Targeting Pod
The targeting pod has been a different, more difficult story. It required a lot of labor by ASD, by LANTIRN ‘s prime contractor, Martin Marietta, and by several subcontractors to get the pod into shape to come through Initial operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) about a year ago.
That testing was rigorous. Some of it was conducted in humid and rainy conditions that taxed the targeting pod to the utmost. In its aftermath, the Air Force insisted on a little better performance from the FLIR subsystem’s wide field of view and from the dual-mode automatic tracker.
The problems were not considered to be serious enough to preclude the targeting pod’s initial low-rate production, however, and it is now under way.
Colonel Fain claims that the pod’s problems have been corrected and that it will do much better in FOT&E (Follow-on Test and Evaluation) flights that are scheduled to begin next month and to end in March or April.
If the pod prevails, it will almost certainly be certified for full-scale production—and ASD will be justified in taking great satisfaction from the success of a technology-stretching program that was once sorely troubled and seemed destined to flop.
“We’ve come a long way in the last two years,” Colonel Fain declares.
Some Air Force officials have questioned whether LANTIRN will be too much for pilots in single-seat attack aircraft to cope with in the company of their many other demanding duties.
This point bears particularly on the Air Force’s plan to put LANTIRN on 300 F-16Cs.
Colonel Fain notes, however, that test pilots have handled LANTIRN quite well while flying solo “in some very tough environments.”