December 17, 2011:
Australia has agreed to pay $8 million for maintenance and support on the 37 LITENING AT targeting pods it bought six years ago. Costing nearly $3 million each, Australia has enough pods for most of its 71 F-18A fighters. The annual maintenance cost comes to $54,000 per pod, per year.
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. 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.
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, which looked like a thin bomb, were hung under the wing of fighters and contained laser designators and night vision equipment. 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. 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. The air force recognizes that the competition, as well as extensive combat use, has been responsible for most of the advances, and wants to get the most from it by having both pods in their inventory. Australia recognized this and bought LITENING pods after Australian F-18s in Iraq in 2003 had an opportunity to see how effective these pods could be. Australia has not yet used their LITENING pods in combat but train with the pods a lot and the pilots have become expert in their use.