After a decade of work and several generations of equipment upgrades China is offering its locally made targeting pods for export. Two pods (WMD-7 and OC2), each from a different manufacturer, are for sale. Both appear to have similar capabilities (infrared targeting range of 20 kilometers and laser designator with a range of 15 kilometers, plus vidcams with zoom and all the hardware and software needed for Chinese smart bombs) as Western models.
In the late 1990s Chinese firms began working on targeting pods. This effort was apparently based on an early version of the LITENING pod the government had obtained. The first Chinese targeting pod, called the DC-1 soon appeared. The pod contained a daylight video camera and a thermal imager for night and bad weather as well as a laser designator. About the same time another Chinese targeting pod, the "Blue Sky" appeared. This one appeared to be based on the U.S. LANTRIN. Before that, aircraft had to be equipped with internal cameras and laser designators. The new pods appeared to be more robust and reliable than the older internal equipment.
About the same time China also began introducing locally made laser guided bomb; the LT-series. These were similar to the American Paveway and the Russian KAB-500L. These apparently did not perform very well but China kept at it and now a line of more reliable and quite inexpensive smart bomb.
Western targeting pods cost about $3 million each and have annual maintenance costs of over $50,000 each. Chinese pods go for about half that. The pods, packed with electronics and sensors, are very popular with fighter pilots, mainly because they contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,200 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down on the ground. 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. The G4 version, introduced in 2008, has improved sensors and software, including the ability to have the software identify many military vehicles and systems automatically. The 200 kg (440 pound) LITENING G4 pod hangs off a hard point, like a missile, bomb, or fuel tank.
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 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.
In 1990, the first targeting pods (the U.S. two pod LANTIRN system) were nearly ready for service. These first electronic targeting pods, which looked like thin bombs, contained laser designators and night vision equipment. 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. An American manufacturer then brought out the Sniper line of pods. All this competition has made the pods (one pod is all that is needed now) more capable, easier to use, more reliable, and cheaper. LITENING pods are in use by 25 countries.