There's a sea change taking place in air combat. Gone are the vast air armadas that waged largely independent campaigns over Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 and over Serbia in 1999. Today's aircraft fleets are much smaller, albeit more capable individually. And in this age of insurgencies, air power is increasingly an adjunct of ground power.These trends plus breakthroughs in podded sensors, agile radars and datalinks have turned tactical aircraft into extensions of the ground-pounder's eyes and hands. Air Force F-16s, F-15s and A-10s, Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s and Marine AV-8s fly over Iraq and Afghanistan in two-ship sections carrying infrared sensor pods and small GPS- and laser-guided bombs. They scout out ahead of the ground troops, deliver accurate fires when called upon and hang around to assess the damage while retaining the (rarely-needed) ability to fight other aircraft. In short, two-jet sections perform the entire range of air combat functions in single sorties. Just ten years ago that would've required a dozen jets.By far the most important function these days is the scouting part. In mil-speak this is called Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR. My coverage of Marine Corps All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 in Iraq touched on their ISR role. Now the Navy is in the game too, with two new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons flying from the equally-new U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.Sea Power has the story:"Almost every flight that goes off the Reagan right now does nothing [over Iraq] but ISR with ATFLIR [sensor pod] systems, said Capt. BD Gaddis, the Navys program manager for the Super Hornet.Gaddis described a typical scenario over Iraq, with a new helmet-mounted capability as part of the situation. A Super Hornet pilot on a forward air controller mission spots enemy activity on the ground. His helmet, fitted with the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System a system that slews a sensor on the aircraft to focus on whatever the pilot is looking at automatically slews the electro-optical sensor in the ATFLIR pod. He designates the target on his cockpit display and its latitude and longitude are transmitted over the radio data link. Whoever is on the data net receives the target information.When they select target designate, their radar, their ATFLIR, their helmet, all slew to that same point on the ground, and there is no talking, Gaddis said. Its all machine-to-machine.The ATFLIRs have joined in combat over Iraq with similar sensor pods on the Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II [and F/A-18D -- ed.] attack aircraft, the Navys F-14 strike fighters, and the Air Forces F-15E and F-16 fighters.Actually, cross the F-14 off that list, as the old bird flew its last operational sortie early this year. Today's Naval air force is built around the Super Hornet, which thanks to its helmet-mounted sight, Advanced Electronically-Scanned Array radar, generous power supply, sensor interfaces and large number of weapons hardpoints is more flexible and therefore better suited to today's operational environment than the hotrod F-14.As far as tactical air forces go, these days the Navy is way ahead of the Air Force. Thanks to the flexible, $60-million Super Hornet, which the Navy has been building at the rapid clip of 40 per year since the mid-1990s, the Naval air force is healthy and useful. The Air Force, meanwhile, has struggled to build 20 $180-million F-22s annually in just the last few years and as a result is seeing the average age of its fighter force climb higher by the day. And while Super Hornets are supporting the troops in Iraq, F-22s are sitting on the tarmac at Langley Air Force Base without the sensors and weapons the ground troops need.Read the whole Sea Power story here.
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