Fighting Around the Clock

Jan. 1, 1987

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.”

Radical Impact

“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.”