Litening pod
Northrop Grumman’s Litening pod has seen over 20 years of service and has been integrated with a wide variety of aircraft.

Published in December 2020/January 2021 issue – Targeting pods have matured and are turning the laser-guided bomb from bludgeon to rapier!

Though guided munitions date back to the Second World War, it was in the Vietnam war that they really came to prominence. Initially, radio-guided and wire-guided missiles were employed, and later TV-guided weapons. But in 1968, the United States Air Force (USAF) undertook combat testing of the world’s first laser-guided bomb (LGB), the Texas Instruments BOLT-117. The BOLT-117 combined a 750lb (340kg) M117 bomb with a KMU-342 laser guidance and control kit. This in turn consisted of a gimballed laser seeker on the front of the bomb to home onto reflected laser energy from the target, with tail-mounted control fins to guide the weapon. Initially the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) in the back seat of an McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter bomber would use an improvised hand-held Airborne Laser Designator (ALD) to illuminate the target, and the bomb (dropped by a second F-4) would then home onto the laser energy reflected by that target. Even with this rudimentary form of guidance, the LGB proved to be more accurate than other guided weapons, and more precise, with a bigger warhead and a lower cost. This was because an LGB was no more than a traditional bomb body mated to a relatively inexpensive add-on guidance kit.

The ALD soon gave way to the Philco-Ford Aeronutronics Division AN/AVQ-10 Pave Knife targeting pod. The pod contained a steerable laser and a closed-circuit television camera. The weapon systems officer steered the laser onto the target with a hand controller, monitoring where the laser was pointing in a small Sony TV in the rear cockpit. It could be used to designate targets for its own bombs (self designation) or carried by a wingman (buddy lasing). The Pave Knife pod was deployed operationally in Vietnam, and was the fore-runner of today’s targeting pods. The Westinghouse AN/AVQ-23 Pave Spike pod was more compact, while other early, daylight only targeting pods included the French Thomson-CSF ATLIS (Automatic Tracking and Laser Integration System) and ATLIS II pods, and the Chinese K/PZS-01 laser targeting pod.

Because ATLIS was designed to be used by single-seat attack aircraft like the Mirage III/5/50 and Jaguar, it had an automatic target lock capability, allowing the pilot to lock on to a target, launch a weapon and then concentrate on flying the aircraft. The pod kept the laser locked on to the target using INS, pattern-matching and edge-detection techniques.

The massive FLIR-equipped Ford Aerospace AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack offered a night/all-weather capability and superb picture quality, but in a heavy and high drag pod, though its operational capabilities made it the new benchmark for a second generation of targeting pods, the leading example of which was the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting, Infrared, for Night) targeting pod. This formed one element of the LANTIRN system, usually being carried together with an AN/AAQ-13 navigation pod, which has a FLIR and a radar for terrain following and mapping.

The US Navy used a similar dual pod arrangement on McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18C/D Hornet, with one carrying a FLIR for navigation, and one a laser spot tracker. In latter years Hornets carried the Lockheed Martin AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk pod (Navigation IR Targeting Equipment), which included a targeting FLIR and a laser designator.

Thomson-CSF’s second generation targeting pod was the PDLCT (Pod de Designation Laser a Camera Thermique/Laser Designation Pod With Infrared Camera), used on the Dassault Mirage 2000, while the UK’s GEC-Marconi developed the TIALD (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) pod for the Panavia Tornado, Hawker Siddeley Harrier and SEPECAT Jaguar – proving most successful on the latter type. TIALD had useful auto-tracking capabilities, and could incorporate an airframe mask to recognize when the laser might be blocked by some part of the carrier aircraft.

3rd Gen Pods

A third generation of pods took advantage of advances in technology, including new more sensitive and higher magnification IR sensors, solid state CCD (charge-coupled device) visible-light cameras, IN/GPS, new recorders, and improved datalinks.

First and second generation targeting pods were also optimised for use at low level, while the third generation tended to be capable of use at higher altitudes, suiting the growing tendency towards medium level tactics and operations.

The new pods are also lighter and smaller in size, with the option of providing wider field of view, allowing them to be used on light attack aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Because UAVs can operate for extended durations, using pods to provide persistent wide-area surveillance, collecting massive amounts of data, one challenge has been to provide compact, low power, network attached storage solutions with very high capacity and a high data throughput rate.

The first of the current generation of pods was Rafael’s Litening. The Israeli company began work on the Litening pod in the mid-1980s and introduced the first model in 1993. The Litening III, which used a third generation day/night 640×480 resolution FLIR, proved particularly popular, giving pilots the ability to search an area using the wide-field imager, before zooming in on a target with the narrow-field imager. Litening pods were exported to Chile, Germany, Greece, India, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and Venezuela, for use on platforms as diverse as the Northrop F-5E and MiG-21 Lancer to the Eurofighter Typhoon. For the UK’s Typhoons, the the UK MoD awarded a £56 million contract to Ultra Electronics for the supply of locally assembled Litening EF pods. The availability of a UK-built Ultra Litening allowed the pod to be offered to the Royal Saudi Air Force, though in the end, the Saudis opted for a French-supplied solution.

Subsequently, Rafael developed the Litening 5 pod, incorporating an upgraded 1.2Kx1.2K large aperture mid-wave and short wave FLIR, with day HD colour imagery.

While Rafael continues to offer the Litening III, IV, 5 and Reccelite pods, the Litening pod is also being sold by Northrop Grumman in the US and for export, with customers including Australia, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

The initial Northrop Grumman variant was the Litening II, which incorporated a 256×256 resolution third generation FLIR, and was ordered by the United States Navy, Spain and Italy for use on the AV-8B Harrier II, and by the USAF for the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F-15E.

Northrop Grumman’s Litening pod
Northrop Grumman’s Litening pod includes a suite of advanced high-resolution sensors and a data link for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition.

The Litening ER (Extended Range) used a 640×512 third generation FLIR, while the Litening AT (Advanced Targeting) made use of new circuitry and software algorithms to extend range and improve accuracy, and to provide better support for GPS-guided weapons. Litening II and ER pods were upgraded to the AT configuration for use on the Fairchild Republic A-10, Boeing B-52H, F-15E, and F-16, and USN and RAAF Hornets.

More recently, Northrop Grumman has offered the Litening Gen 4 (“largely synonymous with Litening 3”), and Litening Digital and Litening Digital Colour pods. The Litening Gen 4 uses a 1024×1024 pixel FLIR and other new technologies to provide enhanced targeting and situational awareness.

Northrop Grumman has received contract awards for 200 upgrades In the last 12 months, with the new pods giving compatability with new digital displays. Colour is regarded as being especially useful for air-to-ground operations, allowing different coloured trucks, and buildings to be picked out. There is less need for colour in the air-to-air role.

Northrop Grumman has recently celebrated the delivery of its 900th LItening pod, in more than 20 years of deliveries. Northrop Grumman claim to have been the first to deploy an all 1K sensor suite in a pod, the first to provide a short wave infra red laser, and the first to offer digital capabilities and colour HD daytime video in the US market. All of this has been made possible by Litening’s modular design and architecture. The Northrop Grumman Litening pod has also been demonstrated on a US Air National Guard MQ-9 Reaper UAV.

Lockheed Martin developed the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod in the mid-1990s, producing a system with better high altitude capability than LANTIRN (which was limited to 25,000 feet), and with better reliability, resolution, and sensitivity, and weighing 180lb (81kg) less than an AN/AAQ-14. Sniper had a much-improved stabilisation system, allowing the crosshairs to be kept on target even at altitudes of up to 40,000ft (12,100m).

B-1B Lancer bomber
A B-1B Lancer bomber offensive systems officer loads software into a Sniper advanced targeting pod prior to a mission. The long-range targeting system provides aircrews with positive target identification, autonomous tracking coordinate generation and precise weapons guidance from extended standoff ranges.

Externally, Sniper was distinguished by its distinctive wedge-shaped nose, which contrasted with the rounded sensor balls used by most other targeting pods, and which was said to be more aerodynamic and more ‘stealthy’. This chisel nose incorporated synthetic sapphire windows, which were highly transparent in the visible and infrared wavebands.

The Sniper pod featured a highly modular design, and was claimed to have half the parts count of the AN/AAQ-14, making it more maintainable and more reliable.

Lockheed Martin have subsequently produced the improved Sniper XR (Extended Range) and the Pantera export model.

The Sniper and Sniper XR have been used on the US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and A-10 Thunderbolt II, and was also exported to the UK, Belgium, Canada, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey.

Sniper subsystems were incorporated in the Lockheed Martin F-35’s EOTS system, and in the AN/AAQ-30 Hawkeye Target Sight System (TSS) of the US Marines’ Bell AH-1Z Cobra Zulu.

Technology developed for the new-generation Sniper pod has also been fed back into modernised versions for the LANTIRN system, under the Enhanced LANTIRN and LANTIRN 2000 designations, and in upgrades, for example to the LANTIRN pods fielded on Royal Danish Air Force and Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s.

The third of the new generation US targeting pods is Raytheon’s AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Technology FLIR (ATFLIR), which was designed to replace the Nite Hawk pod on the Hornet and Super Hornet fighters. ATFLIR featured a more capable FLIR, providing greater stability, resolution, and magnification and demonstrated three to five times more range than the Nite Hawk. Testing was completed in 2003 and ATFLIR was delivered to the US Navy, Marine Corps, Australia, Malaysia and Switzerland.

AN/AAQ-28(V)
The modular design and architecture of the AN/AAQ-28(V) Litening pod.

The USAF launched the Advanced Technology Pod (ATP) competition to find a replacement for LANTIRN on the F-16 and F-15E. This attracted bids from Northrop Grumman with a variant of the Litening II, Lockheed Martin with Sniper and Raytheon. The Sniper pod won the competition in August 2001, but in September 2010 the USAF started to split its purchase of targeting pods, placing orders for the Northrop Grumman Litening pod.

Thales (as Thomson-CSF was renamed) produced the Damocles third-generation targeting pod, which achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2009, and which has been used on the Mirage 2000, Super Etendard, and Rafale – and on Saudi Eurofighter Typhoons. It is widely felt to be inferior to the rival Litening pod, with an IR sensor of just 320×240 resolution, and is now being replaced by the Thales TALIOS, which combined targeting and tactical reconnaissance capabilities in a single pod. TALIOS incorporates Automatic Target Detection and Recognition, and reportedly delivers unmatched image quality, including colour and with real-time imagery integrated into a 3D mapping display. Successfully qualified in 2018, the pod is now combat ready on the Armée de l’Air Rafale.

Turkey has developed an indigenous targeting pod in the shape of the ASELPOD, a high performance electro-optical reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting system designed specifically for use on fast jet platforms, including a high resolution, third generation FLIR. 16 were delivered initially, before 73 more were ordered, together with eight for export to Pakistan for use on the JF-17.

Though many Soviet attack aircraft featured internal, built in laser designators, Russia has developed some podded systems, most notably the UOMZ Sapsan-E, and the combat-proven NPK-SPP T220 pod, used on the Su-30, Su-35 and MiG-35.

The Russian UOMZ Sapsan-E
The Russian UOMZ Sapsan-E features several sensors including a low-light TV camera, an IRST / FLIR dual-band (IIR) sensor, a laser rangefinder and a laser designator.

China’s 613 Institute has developed a family of targeting pods, starting with the FILAT (Forward-looking Infrared and Laser Attack Targeting) pod, unveiled in 1998. This was based on technology from the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN targeting pod, the TIALD pod, and Litening. It has spawned the simplified K/JDC-01 pod, the more advanced WMD-7, and the Loong Eye I and II pods – dedicated variants for UAV applications. China has also deployed the YINGS-III pod on the J-16 (Chinese Su-30) – a pod said to be broadly comparable to the Lockheed Sniper. China has also developed the A-Star AUEODS system, which uses paired TX-S55 and TX-S56 pods.

Though next generation LO aircraft will require internal targeting systems, targeting pods will continue to play a role on fourth generation tactical platforms, UAVs, and special operations and transport aircraft. 

by Jon Lake