Warplanes: Fighters Turned Into Expensive UAVs


February 24, 2006: U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters, equipped with new targeting pods, are now being assigned reconnaissance missions. A new generation of such pods are much more capable, and, as pilots soon discovered, good enough to see a lot of detail about who was doing what down there. Costing two to three million dollars each, the 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, pilots can literally see the progress of ground fighting, and have even been acting as aerial observers for ground forces. But these new capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves, and hit them with highly accurate laser guided or JDAM bombs.

Fighters assigned to recon work now go searching on their own, in areas where there are no friendly ground troops. For Special Forces teams, the new pods are very useful, for the teams often operate deep in hostile territory, and they can use the bombers overhead to hit designated targets, but also ask the warplanes to look elsewhere in the vicinity, in areas the Special Forces troops cannot see, but where they suspect enemy troops are.

The pods enable pilots to clearly see people on the ground from 40 kilometers away, and 6-7 kilometers up. Pilots can see people with guns hiding on roofs, or behind buildings, waiting to ambush approaching coalition or Iraqi troops or convoys. Magnification at night is 30 times, and 60 times during the day. But at night, the pods get sharper images because it is sensing differences in heat below. Things cool off rapidly in Iraq after the sun goes down, everything except the few people running around at night.

The pilots like using the pods for this kind of reconnaissance, because they know it saves the lives of troops who would otherwise get ambushed. The fighters pulling recon duty usually have a few bombs with them, but will take as much additional fuel as possible instead of more weapons. Time on station is more important than bombs on targets. Some of the fighter pilots have really gotten into the recon work. No doubt, many of them grew up playing video games, which looked, and worked, very much like the new targeting pods.

Pilots are also aware that they can replaced with cheaper and more capable UAVs, to do these new types of recon missions. But, for the moment, the pilots have work, work they like.


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