The U.S. Air Force and Navy have equipped hundreds of their aircraft with new targeting pods that are radically changing the way warplanes find and attack ground targets. The air force is installing 600 Sniper XR pods, while the navy is installing a smaller number of similar ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared) pods. 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. 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. 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 first such targeting pods were used in the 1991 Gulf War. Those LANTRIN pods had, by current standards, poor camera resolution for the pilots looking at what's down there. But over ten years of technological progress have given the pilots a much sharper vision of what's on the ground. Pilots can make out if people below are carrying weapons, and can see, in great detail, any buildings and fortifications below. The next step is the installation of digital data links, which enable the pilots to share the images with troops on the ground, other aircraft, or someone pack in the Pentagon. These links have already been installed in some aircraft, and in the next few years, all aircraft with the pods will have the data links. More troops on the ground are getting equipment for catching this data, and displaying the pictures and videos on laptops or PDAs or militarized cell phones. This is all part of the "digital battlefield" project that is installing what is, literally, a battlefield Internet.
While American troops take all of this new gear, and capabilities, for granted, it is scaring the hell out of potential enemies. The Chinese, in particular, are well aware of these new capabilities, and are trying to build similar gear for their own aircraft and ground troops. The Chinese don't see themselves getting this stuff for another decade, when the equipment has gotten cheap enough for them to afford.
The air force is equipping F-16s, F-15s, A-10s, F-35s, and even a few B-52s, with this new equipment. The Navy is installing it in F-18s, and their new F-35s. Air force Ac-130s have had similar equipment for over a decade, which is where these capabilities were first recognized. UAVs are also being equipped with this equipment, enabling ground controllers (who are often stationed in the United States, and running things via a satellite link) to add more eyes in the sky, and more firepower from missiles and smart bombs carried in the new generation of UAVs.