October 29, 2010:
The U.S. Air Force has decided to let the two major targeting pods compete, while they are being used on combat aircraft. This is a novel approach. In 2001, the air force held a more conventional competition between the Sniper and Litening pods, and Sniper won. But Litening continued to evolve and has been winning more sales around the world than Sniper. So the air force gave both Lockheed Martin (which produces Sniper) and Northrop Grumman (Litening) contracts for up to 670 pods over the next seven years. But the pod that evolves, and performs, most effectively, will get the most orders.
The air force now has nearly 600 Sniper pods, which are very popular with fighter pilots. They are used on F-15, F-16, A-10 and B-1 aircraft. These pods contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 3,200 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down there. 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) Sniper pod hangs off a hard point, like a missile, bomb or fuel tank. Nineteen years ago, the first targeting pods (the U.S. two pod LANTIRN system) were nearly ready for service. These first electronic targeting pods, that 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.