April 19, 2014:
The U.S. Air Force recently declared the new version of the Sniper ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod) targeting pod ready for service. This version is called SE (for Sensor Enhancement) and contains a lot of classified improvements that make it easier for pilots to exchange pod data with the ground and other aircraft. The sensor improvement apparently includes a library of known shapes (from different distances and angles) of a wide variety of vehicles and ships so that the pod can advise the pilot what difficult to distinguish shapes down there really are.
Currently the air force buys both Sniper XTP and LANTRIN pods. Although similar in capability (largely because of air force requirements) the two pods are different and the air force likes to have two sources because that creates competition that keeps everyone on their toes. The air forces uses these pods on A-10C, B-1, F-15E and F-16C aircraft.
Targeting pods cost over $3 million each and contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down there. At least in good weather. At night and in murky weather the FLIR will show shapes and the SE version of the pod can make more sense of the shapes. 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 highly accurate 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 first such targeting pods were used in the 1991 Gulf War. Those LANTRIN pods had, by current standards, poor camera resolution for the pilots looking at what's down there. But technological progress throughout the 1990s gave pilots a much sharper vision of what's on the ground. Pilots can make out if people below are carrying weapons, and can see, in great detail, any buildings and fortifications below. The next step was the installation of digital data links, which enabled the pilots to share the images with troops on the ground, other aircraft, or someone back in the Pentagon. These links have already been installed in some aircraft, and in the next few years, all aircraft with the pods will have the data links. More troops on the ground are getting equipment for catching this data, and displaying the pictures and videos on laptops or tablets or militarized smart phones. This is all part of the "digital battlefield" project that is installing what is, literally, a battlefield Internet.