An airborne combat platform is useless without an array of sensors that detects threats and targets, and helps destroy them quickly. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been a leading user of airborne sensors for ground and maritime missions and the level of capability available from them is being increased in coming years.
"We are using every sensor available to create the big picture", an IDF source said recently. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) uses a large variety of sensors and pods on its combat aircraft. Many of these have been locally developed and manufactured to answer specific operational needs.
The list is mostly classified but some of the systems can be discussed, with limitations.
The pods are used by the IAF almost daily in intelligence gathering missions that enable the force to stay fully updated about the threats from first, second and third circle enemy countries. High-resolution imagery is still the main way of collecting data, but in recent years and at a growing pace, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is pushing it aside for obvious reasons. The SAR sensors allow continuous, undisturbed observation capabilities, no matter what the weather.
Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is manufacturing some of the more advanced SAR pods for fighter aircraft. The company has managed to pack very impressive capabilities into a 196 kg pod. The EL/M-20600 RTP is a SAR system that provides high quality radar images of ground targets and terrain from standoff ranges.
Baruch Reshef, Elta's deputy director for marketing says that the system has a number of operational modes. Strip SAR is used for fast imaging of a wide ground surface strip. Spot SAR is used for high resolution imaging of targets, with the GMTI mode very capable in detecting moving targets and the GTT mode used for accurate tracking of stationary and moving targets.
The EL/M 20600 is only one system in a large product range that is used by the Israeli Air Force alone or approved for export.
The IAF says that the SAR pods are a "force multiplier" as far as intelligence gathering is concerned. The IAF sources do not go into details, but it can be assumed that combining the SAR pods with accurate weapon systems gives the IAF a set of operational advantages that were not available before these systems were fielded.
The Rafael Litening targeting pod has become in recent years a "best seller" among many air forces – including Australia’s. Only recently Rafael celebrated the sale of its 1000th pod. The Litening was recently selected as one of two systems that will be carried by the U.S Air Force air combat command aircraft.
The demand for targeting pods has increased mainly because of the good results from their use in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Litening combines in a single pod all the targeting capabilities needed for a combat aircraft to detect, identify and attack a target.
The latest generation of the Litening uses an advanced thermal sensor, based on a focal-plane array of 640x480 detectors, operating at the medium thermal band (3-5μ). According to Rafael, the image quality of the FLIR is identical to the CCD. The pod processes the video signals in digital video format, enabling electronic stabilization and image enhancement, resulting in a very sharp picture, even at extended ranges. Utilization of digital video also enables advanced processing and future upgrades.
Rafael has installed a more powerful dual-wavelength laser in the pod, which enables unrestricted operations from high altitude and long range. It can also be operated in an eye safe laser mode for training.
This integrated array enables the pilot to detect, recognize, identify, track and engage ground targets in day, night and adverse weather conditions. The pod also allows designating each target with a laser. This designator can be carried on the same aircraft that is flying with the pod or the designation can be done by another aircraft flying in the area.
Amiram Ash, Rafael's Director of the electro optics division says that Litening allows the aircraft to perform maneuvers during and after the attack path, without losing the lock on the target. The sensors Ash said, “provide imagery for night navigation as well as hit verification and battle damage assessment after the attack”.
Litening can be used for continuous monitoring of an area of interest.
It is used now by the US Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard for their F-16 Block 25/30/32 Fighting Falcons. The pod is also used on the US Marine Corps AV-8B, Spanish and Italian Navy AV-8B and Spanish air force F/A-18, German Air Force Tornado IDS, and Venezuelan F-16A/B. South Africa selected the system for its Gripens. The Indian airforce uses the system on its Mirage 2000, MiG-27 and Jaguar. In the RAF, the system is integrated on Tornados and Eurofighters. In Australia the pods are on RAAF’s Hornets.
Some of these users are already negotiating an upgrade to the latest version of the pod.
Ash disclosed that the company is now offering the fourth generation of the Litening. The newer version has longer observation ranges and other improvements based on new algorithms incorporated in the system’s computers.
Rafael has recently released information about the improved version of its RecceLite, real-time intelligence and reconnaissance system. The RecceLite is a self-contained, self-cooled, multi-sensor tactical reconnaissance device.
RecceLite is a derivative of Rafael's Litening which simultaneously collects Infra-Red (IR) and Visual (VIS) and near IR digital images of large areas. The images and the data are stored on a solid state recorder and transmitted to the ground exploitation station via the RecceLite data link.
The new gimbaled version can be controlled from the ground to focus on "areas of interest". This feature points to the growing need for two way data links that connect the airborne platform and ground forces.
In case of a data link failure the system will send the images to the ground station immediately after the connection is re-established. The new version also has improved resolution and the capability to cover larger areas.
Ash explained that the Reccelite has 80 % commonality with the Litening and is used for "Snap shots" of an area. It is now operational in Afghanistan on combat aircraft operated by the Dutch, German and Italian air forces.
Elbit electro-optics subsidiary Elop has also developed electro-optic pods for combat aircraft. The newest version is the Condor TAC - a tactical reconnaissance system which provides 24/7 high-resolution, visible and IR mono and stereo images, from very low to very high altitudes.
According to Elop, the Condor TAC is mainly aimed at vertical photography from 500 to 40,000 feet.
It is capable of providing continuous rapid wide-area coverage and full-resolution imagery for each of its EO and IR channels. The system is available in EO panchromatic or color RGB versions. Its autonomous navigation capability is provided by the INS/GPS embedded in the camera. The pod also contains a Management &Video Processing Unit (MVU), Data Link, and Data Recorder.
Elop also manufactures the Condor 2 – which is aa Long Range Oblique Photography (LOROP) system which provides high-resolution imagery, while allowing the reconnaissance aircraft to remain at a long stand-off distance from the target. The Condor 2 can be operated from altitudes of 10,000 to 50,000 feet but Chenobrov said that a typical mission is performed in an altitude band of between 30 to 40,000 feet.
The Condor 2 generates simultaneous high resolution visible and IR images, covering wide areas in a short time. By flying high the carrying aircraft is safe from almost all ground threats. Elop says that the small pod can be carried by F-16 sized fighters.
The sensors in their different shapes and sizes give the IAF's combat aircraft the extra edge needed to perform an air-ground missions successfully. But they are also a very important - if not a crucial set of "eyes" - that help ground forces and also those at sea to operate in the most efficient way.
In recent years the airborne sensors carried by the IAF's manned and unmanned platforms have shown that the investment in technology that allows a steady flow of real time data to combat units is of crucial importance. This flow of information requires very advanced data links and some Israeli companies have developed several with outstanding capabilities.
Creating the "big picture" has become a very complicated task. On one hand the technology is very advanced and on the other the steady flow of many types of data must be presented in some sort of prioritized way to avoid the creation of "operational confusion". This is now the focus of some Israeli defence companies that are using their know-how to create the "big picture" - but one that is tailored to specific operational needs at any given minute.