Fighter Jets' New Role: Recon

This has been an extremely cool couple of weeks for Defense Tech. Not because of anything I've written. But because several of my favorite journalists covering the military have been pitching in. David Axe -- who just returned from Basra, on assignment for the Village Voice -- is the latest.In addition to the Village Voice, David's written for The Washington Times, Salon.com, Proceedings, Sea Power, Air International, Combat Aircraft, Aircraft Illustrated, Warships International Fleet Review, and others. He's also a video journalist for C-SPAN. His graphic novel memoir, WAR FIX, comes out in the spring. David's nonfiction book about Army ROTC, called ARMY 101, is due in 2006 from University of South Carolina Press.U.S. tactical fighters havent dropped a lot of bombs since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it's not like they haven't been busy. In seven months "The Bengals" that's Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 to you -- flew 2,500 sorties in their dozen F/A-18Ds, totaling around 8,000 hours.ATARS_underside.JPGSo what were The Bengals doing with all these flight hours? Reconnaissance, is what: Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), in current mil-jargon. The confluence of low-intensity warfare and new technology (especially small, cheap targeting pods) means tactical jets are spending less time dropping bombs and more time collecting intelligence for Marines and soldiers on the ground.During the Cold War, tactical aerial reconnaissance (recce) was the purview of a large force of specialized platforms like the RF-4C. In the 1990s, the U.S. services quickly shed their recce platforms -- until a shortage of assets over Bosnia and the Persian Gulf prompted a panicked renewal that saw a small number of Air National Guard F-16s and Marine F/A-18Ds equipped with podded or palletized cameras. Then came Iraq, where skyrocketing demand for ISTAR outpaced even the rushed introduction of drones like Predator. During the invasion, Marine AV-8Bs equipped with Litening targeting pods (containing laser designators and trackers as well as Forward-Looking Infra Red and Charge Couple Device cameras) pioneered the use of targeting pods in the recce role, spotting insurgents for ground forces to go hit.Even before the development of targeting-pod ISTAR tactics, there was a push across the services to equip all tactical aircraft (tacair) with new targeting pods like Litening and Sniper in order to facilitate autonomous use of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). Even B-52 and B-1 bombers and A-10 Close Air Support jets are getting pods. Serendipitously, the PGM revolution has enabled an ISTAR revolution. Now, after a decade of relatively modest investment, there are literally thousands of ISTAR-capable jets in the U.S. inventory.Developments in radar and other sensors are only strengthening the ISTAR capabilities of tactical jets. F-15Cs, F/A-18E/Fs and F/A-22s equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array radars are capable of simultaneous ground-mapping and tracking of ground targets, essentially acting as mini E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. Passive sensors like cameras and Radar Warning Receivers round out multi-spectral tacair ISTAR capabilities.Perfecting this sensor fusion is a major selling point of the next generation of fighters. Lately, the Department of Defense has begun promoting the future F-35 as an ISTAR asset while de-emphasizing its traditional ground-attack capabilities. But the Bengals' collection of pods and radars already do a pretty good rough approximation.

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