The expertise and professionalism of the Tomcat FAC(A)s allowed Strike Eagle aircrews who worked with them to get the most out of their new pods.
The F-15 has formed the backbone of US and Coalition operations in the Middle East for over a decade, flying over northern and southern Iraq as part of Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch. The F-15E was constantly dropping weapons onto the Iraqi SAM and AAA emplacements that engaged Coalition aircraft undertaking this mission.
The USAF’s use of the F-15 in the region culminated with Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), which was launched in mid March 2003 in order to liberate the people of Iraq and ensure the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. As explained by Steve Davies in his book F-15C/E Eagle Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the event, the F-15Es of the 4th Fighter Wing saw most prolific use, engaging Iraqi armour before Coalition ground troops moved forward, and providing close air support to soldiers and Special Forces as they came into contact with the enemy.
The few serviceable AAQ-28s provided some great daytime PID (positive identification to ensure the target was hostile) capabilities according to Capt Joe Siberski, an instructor WSO with 336th Fighter Squadron (FS) ‘Rocketeers’ but they also had poor night-time (infra-red sensor) characteristics;
`The pod made life a lot easier for me for almost one reason alone – positive target identification. The only way to ID something like a vehicle with the LANTIRN pod (AAQ-14) was to fly your precious ass into the heart of every single threat the bad guy has — not a good way to do business. With the Litening pod, we could stay at medium altitude and ID from there. Now, that sounds like a huge upgrade in capability for the Strike Eagle because our Pilot/WS0 coordination and software integration makes for a lethal combination from medium altitude. But there’s more.
‘It’s a huge capability boost for all war fighters. With a Litening II pod, we can ID and hand off targets to any platform over the radio, and we can also hand them off digitally to other data link capable systems. which is best.’
But Siberski added that the pod also demonstrated some inferior characteristics. As he put it;
`I couldn’t stand the Litening in IR mode once stuff started burning. The AAQ-28 uses a different part of the IR spectrum to the LANTIRN. I’m told the different spectrum allows the pod to be more sensitive, hence the much better picture. My observation is that this spectrum is more sensitive to washing out the picture when secondary explosions are going off in the area of interest. Furthermore, the Litening II was originally engineered for F-16s (single-seat mentality), and there was little “manual tuning” ability like there is for LANTIRN. Instead, there was a range of tuning settings, called histograms, that we could step through.
`The guys at the 422nd TES (Test & Evaluation Squadron) spent a lot of time trying to tweak the different histograms to deal with blooming, but I still had issues. I did most of my flying with it during the day, so I usually had the EO camera selected. The EO camera is superb in good visibility, and the only blooming you have to worry about is the dirt, fire and target parts covering your next target.’
Capt Christian Burbach, instructor WSO with 335th FS ‘Chiefs’, had some very positive experiences with the AAQ-28’s spot tracker, as he explained;
`We worked with some of the FAC(A) F-14A guys who were at the Deid (four F-14A Tomcats from VF-154 embarked on the USS Kitty Hawk in the Northern Arabian Gulf were assigned to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, during OIF). On one occasion the Tomcat RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) said to me, “Okay, here’s my laser code, I’m lasing now”. He lased a DMPI (desired mean point of impact – target) and said, “Here’s the first one”. Then he dragged my laser spot tracker over to the next target and said, “Here’s the second one”. Then he dragged it over to the third one. I made a mark point on the first, gave my wingman the second DMPI and we dropped on the same run-in and hit both targets simultaneously. Then we turned around and dropped on the third target, with the F-14A lasing my bomb in for me.’
This kind of utility is valuable — just as FDL (Fighter Data Link) is — and the expertise and professionalism of the Tomcat FAC(A)s allowed Strike Eagle aircrews who worked with them to get the most out of their new pods. While not typical of most F-15E crews’ experience in OIF, this mission nevertheless, showed what was possible when conditions allowed.
F-15C/E Eagle Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Lance Cheung / U.S. Air Force and Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom / U.S. Navy