The U.S. Department of Defense is spending around $200,000 each to upgrade over 500 air force and marine LITENING targeting pods to the latest (G4) standard. The G4 versions cost nearly $3 million each new and have annual maintenance costs of over $50,000 each. It is much cheaper to upgrade older pods than to buy new ones. 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 G4 version also has greater range and higher resolution, enhanced zoom capability and improved tracking software.
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 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 using a targeting pod 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 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. Over 1,200 LITENING pods are in use by 25 countries. The first version of LITENING entered service in the 1990s.