With its ASQ-228 ATFLIR (advanced targeting forward-looking infrared pod) in full-rate production for the U.S. Navy, and in daily use over Iraq, Raytheon is building upon the pod’s outstanding long-range performance to expand its repertoire, both in operational roles and capabilities.
The ATFLIR package was developed to provide the Boeing F/A-18 combat aircraft with an austere weather, long-range targeting capability. It is housed in a 72-inch pod on the port fuselage station. Common optics and a mid-wave staring focal plane array support an infrared channel with 30x magnification and an electro-optical channel offering up to 60x magnification.
What Raytheon claims to be the most powerful and accurate laser designator in any in-service pod allows the ATFLIR to be used from altitudes up to 50,000 feet and at slant ranges of over 30 miles. Its third-generation technology keeps it effective in poor atmospheric conditions, and its high accuracy allows the ATFLIR to pass targeting coordinates to J-series GPS-guided weapons.
According to Dave Goold, head of business development at Raytheon’s space and airborne systems division, the ATFLIR provides reliability and maintainability that is between three and five times better than legacy pods. Its total ownership costs are calculated to be around two thirds of the first-generation systems it replaces.
U.S. Navy requirements for the ATFLIR stand at 574–one for every Hornet and Super Hornet in the fleet–of which 215 have been contracted so far. The pod went to sea in 2001, and early examples saw action over Afghanistan on Super Hornets. Deployments were extended to the legacy F/A-18C in mid-2004, and the pod is also fully compatible with the F/A-18A+/B+ models.
For Hornet operators, the ATFLIR offers the “lowest risk, best-value solution,” according to Goold. The pod is fully integrated with the F/A-18, and is considered part of the overall weapons system.
Australia is about to announce the winner of its new-generation Hornet pod competition, in which the ATFLIR is pitted against the Lockheed Martin Pantera (Sniper XR for export) and Northrop Grumman Litening AT. Canada is examining a new pod for its CF-18s under the AMIRS (advanced multirole infrared sensor) project, for which the ATFLIR is a leading contender. A formal request for proposal is expected in September. Other Hornet operators such as Finland and Switzerland are also in preliminary discussions as they seek to broaden the operational capabilities of their F/A-18 fleets.
Raytheon also offers a self-cooled version of the ATFLIR that could be integrated with a much wider range of aircraft platforms. On the Hornet, cooling for the pod is provided from the aircraft’s own systems. To fit the pod to other types requires an environmental control system to be added, raising the length to between 83 and 85 inches. A self-cooled ATFLIR was successfully demonstrated in 2001. Britain’s Royal Air Force has asked for preliminary information on self-cooled ATFLIR as it seeks a successor to the Tornado’s TIALD (thermal imaging airborne laser designator) pod, and Raytheon is also pursuing future orders associated with Eurofighter Typhoon.
ATFLIR for Reconnaissance
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is one area where the ATFLIR is making key advances. In the nontraditional ISR arena, the lead has been taken by U.S. Navy crews over Iraq, who have been putting the pod’s talents to new uses. From their vantage point, Hornet crews have found the ATFLIR an ideal tool for monitoring movements along highways and pipelines, and for the crucial role of sweeping routes ahead of friendly forces.
A typical operation might involve a Hornet covering a counterinsurgency team in an urban area. The streets ahead of the team can be checked for potential ambushes or suspicious vehicles. Rooftops can be checked for snipers. If the night’s target is, say, a building where insurgents are to be apprehended, the ATFLIR allows the F/A-18 crew to check that no-one escapes from the house during the raid.
For a variety of ISR uses Raytheon is forging ahead with an aggressive development program to field a Ku-band datalink in an ATFLIR pod in around eight to nine months. Ku-band is mandated as the future system datalink protocol and, as well as its 10.71-mbps data transfer rate, has none of the self-jamming problems associated with the C-band datalink used by many current systems.
The high data transfer rate–“like having a DSL connection on your computer rather than dial-up,” according to Goold–allows near real-time transfer of streaming video to ground- or sea-based consoles. The datalink will have the ability to be fully two-way, allowing ground operators to control what the pod is viewing without recourse to voice communications.
By harnessing emerging capabilities to the ATFLIR, Raytheon is ensuring its pod remains a key node in the growing U.S. networkcentric warfare architecture, and an attractive proposition for overseas customers.