Electronic Weapons: No Heat Vision For F-15Cs

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April 3, 2011: As an economy move, and because of unspecified "technical problems", the U.S. Air Force is dropping all efforts to equip any of its F-15C fighters with IRST (InfraRed, Search and Track) pods. This includes an effort, two years ago, to equip a hundred F-15Cs with heat sensing pods once used to equip navy F-14Ds (which were retired in 2006). The refurbished navy IRST pods would have enabled the F-15s to detect and track aircraft, over a hundred kilometers away, from the heat the target aircraft give off. IRST is a passive (it does not broadcast) sensor, thus it is undetectable by the enemy.

IRST has its limitations. The main ones are range (usually about 30 kilometers for accurate detection, farther for "something is there") and problems with clouds distorting the heat signature of the target. The short range means that another aircraft using its radar (which has a range of over 100 kilometers for precise identification) has an obvious edge. The distortion problems are slowly being solved by improved computer analysis of the detected image. Since many warplanes like to operate "quiet" (without any electronic transmissions), IRST becomes the best way to spot the other guy, and open fire, first. IRST is also capable of spotting stealth aircraft, which are protected from radar reflections, but still have jet engines throwing off lots of heat. The F-14D IRST was notable for its long range. But at more than 30 kilometers, the IRST gave pretty vague data. Still, it's believed that just having an indication that someone is out there, more than a hundred kilometers away, gives you an edge.

The U.S. Navy is also installing a new IRST in its F-18Es, which will be mounted in a modified centerline drop tank (which will contain the IRST as well as 68 percent of the usual fuel). One problem with this approach is that the F-18E can't jettison this drop tank, to make itself more maneuverable for air-to-air combat. Other aircraft, like the F-22 and F-35, have the IRST built into the fuselage.

 


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