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USAF Taps Large-Aperture Targeting Pod

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Northrop Grumman’s Litening LA targeting pod is slated to be rolled out across the US Airforce inventory, according to the company. [Image: Northrop Grumman]

The global aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman says the US Air Force will upgrade its existing fleet with a new, large-aperture (LA) version of Northrop’s Litening advanced electro-optic/infrared “targeting pod.” According to the company, the air Force, which first selected the Litening product nearly 25 years ago, plans to integrate the upgraded Litening LA version “throughout its existing aircraft inventory.”

Three-decade history

According to Northrop Grumman, the Litening targeting pod product line is designed to enable detection, acquisition, identification and tracking of targets at “extended ranges,” for “a wide range of missions, including precision targeting, air superiority, close air support, surveillance and humanitarian assistance.” The pod traces its development to efforts in the early 1990s by the Israel defense technology firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which brought the first systems to fruition for the Israeli Air Force. In 1995, Rafael and Northrop teamed up to expand development and marketing of the targeting pod.

Since then, Northrop Grumman says, more than 920 of the pods have been delivered and used for a total of 3.5 million operational hours, across a wide variety of combat and other aircraft. The targeting pod is mounted on the underside of the aircraft, and includes high-res forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and visible-spectrum imaging and video, laser range-finding and target tracking, and software embedding a variety of advanced targeting algorithms. It also, Northrop Grumman notes, “allows for future capabilities, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Boosting resolution, range and speed

The company says the sensors in the three-aperture Litening LA cover “a wider portion of the spectrum than ever before, leaving nowhere to hide.”

The pod’s new large-aperture version, the Litening LA, provides a 50% increase in resolution and an “operationally significant” gain in range, according to the company. Northrop Grumman says the LA’s visible color and short-, mid- and long-wave IR sensors—arranged in a three-aperture configuration to allow for larger sensing units—cover “a wider portion of the spectrum than ever before, leaving nowhere to hide.” The firm has also souped up the Litening LA’s video processing speed, boosted imaging stabilization and implemented other control improvements for “greater accuracy and tracking under challenging conditions.”

One interesting feature of the Litening program is that throughout its development, Northrop Grumman has focused on keeping the form factor of the pods the same, so that new iterations can be quickly swapped in for previous-generation versions without modifications. This should simplify rollout of the Litening LA for the existing Air Force fleet.

The new pod’s passive targeting capabilities “have the potential to change the way pilots approach combat in high-intensity conflicts,” James Conroy, Northrop’s VP, electronic warfare and targeting, said in a press release accompanying the announcement. “We are widening the aperture on how electro-optical/infrared targeting can contribute to mission success, with a more advanced and powerful pod.”

Publish Date: 20 February 2024

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