South Korea has received more of the several dozen AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Targeting pods it had ordered for its F-15K fighter-bombers. The growing threat of war with North Korea has led to the speeding up of orders for many critical items of military equipment. South Korea wants as many of its F-15Ks as possible equipped with the Sniper pod, and the pilots trained in its use. The U.S. Air Force buys Sniper XTP targeting pods for about $2 million each, and currently has over 500 of these pods, which are all the rage with fighter pilots. Targeting pods are used on F-15, F-16, A-10 and B-1 aircraft.
These pods contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,500 meters (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 (at least 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 capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves, and hit them with 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 200 kg (440 pound) pod hangs off a hard point, like a missile, bomb or fuel tank.
Twenty years ago, the first targeting pods (the U.S. two pod LANTIRN system) were nearly ready for service. These first electronic targeting pods, that each looked like a thin bomb, were hung under the wing of fighters, and contained laser designators and night vision equipment. Those capabilities are still the core functions of targeting pods, but have become more powerful, reliable and cheaper over the last two decades.
The LANTIRN got a workout in the 1991 Gulf War, even though the system was still undergoing testing. Israel soon followed with a cheaper, more reliable and more capable Litening system. American manufacturers then brought out the Sniper XR and XTP 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. Pilots can either snag GPS coordinates for a smart bomb their aircraft is carrying, or use a laser designator, to drop bombs with extreme accuracy.
The South Korean F-15K is a customized version of the 36 ton U.S. F-15E (a two seat fighter bomber version of the single seat, 31 ton F-15C fighter). Already in service for over twenty years, the F-15E can carry up to 11 tons of bombs and missiles, along with a targeting pod and an internal 20mm cannon. It's an all weather aircraft that can fly one-way up to 3,900 kilometers. It uses in-flight refueling to hit targets anywhere on the planet. Smart bombs made the F-15 particularly efficient. The backseater handles the electronics and bombing and, most of the time, the targeting pod. The F-15E remains a potent air-superiority fighter, making it an exceptional combat aircraft. This success prompted Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Singapore to buy it, paying about $100 million per aircraft. In the U.S. Air Force, the F-15E is one of the most popular aircraft for combat pilots to fly, even more so than the new F-22.