“In today’s combat environment, the name of the game in dropping air-to-ground munitions is how to double the distance from the target from which we can drop the weapon itself–the release range–but still not experience any decrease in accuracy,” said Lockheed Martin’s John Schoeppner. “We have achieved this level of performance with our AN/AAQ-33 Sniper targeting pod, but what we feel further differentiates us from our competitors is our pod’s ease of adaptability and modular design.”
LM has had remarkable success with the Sniper, having sold 522 units to the U.S. Air Force and 22 more to Poland as part of its procurement of the F-16. Combat commanders operating in Iraq have given the system high marks, stating that when searching for insurgents on the move the resolution provided allows them to distinguish between differing models of pickup truck–even at high altitude.
Sniper achieves this performance by using a mid-wave, third-generation forward-looking infrared sensor, a dual-mode laser and a charge-coupled device television along with a laser spot tracker and laser marker. These advanced sensors are then combined with new image processing algorithms and improved stabilization of the platform, which significantly enhance the resolution of the images seen by the aircrews.
Sniper has become the targeting pod of choice for most of the Boeing F-15 and F-16 community, but LM is now bidding to put the pod on the foreign operators of the Boeing F/A-18, a platform that has used a number of different pods to date. The latest F/A-18 model, the E/F variant, has been fitted with Raytheon’s AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR, but the U.S. Navy is the only customer for this aircraft. Only the earlier A/B and C/D models, which use either the Loral AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk or the Rafael/Northrop-Grumman/Weiss Litening pod, have been exported.
Schoeppner sees the Sniper as having several advantages over these competitors in two major areas other than overall performance.
“First of all, the design of the Sniper with the aerodynamically friendly front-end configuration cuts down measurably on the shock wave created by flight at supersonic speeds,” Schoeppner told Aviation International News. “This contrasts with the rounded front end of the Litening that creates a much larger shock wave. Secondly, Sniper has been relatively easy to integrate onto the F/A-18 because of its modular construction. Mounting it on opposite side of the aircraft from its usual placement on the F-16 or F-15 has caused us no difficulty–just switching some of our LRU modules from one side to the other in order for maintenance personnel to be able to service the pod without removing it from the pylon.” Sniper has completed an entire set of acceptance and certification flights at the U.S. Navy’s China Lake facility and is currently undergoing weapons separation tests at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Two near-term targets for a Sniper sale are the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), both of which fly the older F/A-18A/B models. The RAAF is in the market for 37 pods for the F/A-18s and Canada would also be hoping to procure from 30 to 40 units. Given the level of cooperation between the two nations on F/A-18 modifications, most defense observers expect one nation to follow the other in selecting a new targeting pod.
According to analysts familiar with the relative merits of Sniper, Litening and ATFLIR in terms of performance, it is not much of a contest. They give the nod to Sniper in most scenarios, but at the same time there is the factor of industrial and procurement politics. “The RAAF tends to look very closely at and follows what the U.S. Marine Corps aviation community does with its F/A-18s,” said an Australian defense official, “and at the moment, the Marines are disposed to buy Litening simply because it is cheaper for them in the short run.”
What may temper the Australian and Canadian decisions, however, are some realities of new-generation multinational programs like the F-35 fighter. “The Marines can go with Litening as an interim solution,” said the Australian official, “because they know they have [Lockheed Martin] F-35s coming their way very soon. The internally mounted targeting systems in the nose of the JSF is what Sniper is based on so their rationale is ‘why pay for the same technology twice.’ However, both the RAAF and the RCAF realize that their F-35s are going to be delivered much later–as all of these programs experience schedule delays–so we and the Canadians are forced to think about a targeting pod that is new generation and will work for us well into 2012 and beyond.”
This puts LM in the curious position of what is bad for the F-35 program in terms of delays in export deliveries may be good for the Sniper program. Doubling release ranges and the other capabilities of the Sniper are a major enhancement for the survivability of air crews. If one of the F-35 export customers does not have this stealthy JSF in its air force yet, having a Sniper pod might make the difference between a non-stealthy aircraft like the F/A-18 returning and not retuning from a mission in the post-2010 time frame.