Warplanes: B-1B Gets A Legal Sniper

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August 15, 2008:  On August 4th, a U.S. B-1B heavy bomber used a Sniper targeting pod in combat for the first time. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail,  what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 20,000 feet altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman, or is carrying a weapon.

It was five years ago that the U.S. first experimented with putting a Litening targeting pod on B-52s. Three years later, Sniper XR targeting pods were installed on some B-1B bombers. It proved legally and technically difficult to get the pods working on the B-1B. The legal issue had to do with nuclear disarmament treaties (that reclassified B-1Bs as non-nuclear bombers, but required negotiation to change the equipment mounted on the outside of the aircraft.) The technical issues had to do with installing the pod and associated electronics in an aircraft that was not designed for such gear.

B-52s used these pods for finding and attacking targets during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Currently, B-52s are using the pods for finding and targeting ships at sea, then using their targeting pods to hit moving ships with laser guided bombs. But the pods can also be used for intelligence collection, as remarkably detailed photos and videos can be made from high altitudes.

 The latest generation of these pods contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 20,000 feet to clearly make out what is going on down there. The pods also contain laser designators for laser guided bombs, and laser range finders that enable pilots to get coordinates for JDAM (GPS guided) bombs. Safely outside the range of most anti-aircraft fire (five kilometers up, and up to fifty kilometers away), pilots can literally see the progress of ground fighting, and have even been acting as aerial observers for ground forces. These new capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves, and hit them with highly accurate laser guided or JDAM bombs. While bombers still get target information from ground controllers for close (to friendly troops) air support, they can now go searching on their own, in areas where there are no friendly ground troops.

The air force would rather use similar targeting capabilities on UAVs (like Predator or Reaper) for this kind of intelligence work. But one B-1B can cover most of the smart bomb needs for Iraq or Afghanistan. So it makes sense to have these aircraft equipped with a targeting pod, to help with finding and identifying targets, as well as checking on the damage later.

Eighteen years ago, the first targeting pods (the U.S. two pod LANTIRN system) were nearly ready for service. These electronic pods, that looked like a thin bomb, were hung under the wings of fighters, and contained laser designators and night vision equipment. The LANTIRN got a workout in the 1991 Gulf War, even though the system was still undergoing testing.

Israel soon followed with a cheaper (each LANTIRN cost two million dollars), more reliable and more capable Litening system. American manufacturers then brought out the Sniper XR pod. All this competition has made the pods (one pod is all that is needed now) more capable, easier to use, more reliable and cheaper.

 


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