At the AFA Conference last week, Northrop Grumman (NG) and Selex ES revealed details of the InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) pod that they are proposing to meet a new U.S. Air Force requirement. The transatlantic partnership is building on NG’s new concept of an Open Pod that can be adapted for various tasks, including communications, electronic warfare and targeting. NG previously partnered with Rafael to produce Litening targeting pods for the U.S. military, but the company also pointed to a long association with Selex ES, including the Directed InfraRed CounterMeasures (DIRCM) system, and the laser for the Litening pod.
James Mocarski, NG’s vice president for airborne tactical sensors, noted that using IRST systems to detect and track opposing combat aircraft is a “rapidly evolving mission” in the U.S. IRST systems have been featured on European and Russian combat aircraft for years. But the last U.S. combat aircraft to feature the technology was the long-retired Navy F-14D Tomcat. Boeing has a development contract from the U.S. Navy for a pod to fit the F/A-18 fleet. An RFP from the U.S. Air Force for a pod to fit F-15s is expected in early-mid-2016, according to Mocarski.
Giorgia Balza, head of IRST and Skyward programs for Selex ES, explained that the company had developed sophisticated IRST technology via the Eurofihter partnership (the Pirate LWIR sensor), followed by a dual-band IR system for Italy’s aircraft carrier, and the MWIR system that has recently been successfully flight-tested on the pan-European Neuron UCAV. The latest application is the LWIR Skyward-G sensor for the new E/F version of the Saab Gripen fighter. For the partnership with NG, Selex ES has repackaged the latter sensor into a smaller space, namely the interchangeable Open Pod nose. The processor similarly plugs-in to the rear interchangeable section of the Open Pod.
Balza said that the IRST sensor is capable of automatic detection and track, including automatic target recognition. He declined to specify detection ranges but noted the stealthy nature of such detection, versus the emissions typical of a combat aircraft’s radar system. Algorithms are “the glue that blends the electronics and the sensor” he added, claiming years of development. But the detector must also have a high-quality focal plane array and be accurately stabilized, he added.
Mocarski said that the new NG pod could be wing or fuselage-mounted. The company had already flown the pod on its own BAC One Eleven airliner testbed, and a CRJ, proving its open architecture provisions. The pod will be flown on a fighter in the fourth quarter of this year, he added.
Having supplied the sensor to Boeing for the Navy F/A-18 pod, Lockheed Martin is also competing for the U.S. Air Force contract. Its candidate pod is named Legion, which would fit on the F-15 centerline. LM officials told AIN that their understanding from a recent industry day is that the Air Force is seeking an early IOC and therefore does not require the development of new hardware.