Platform vs sensors – decision time approaches

This is a major question, and it is becoming more acute: How important is the aerial platform compared with the systems it can carry?

Platforms get very expensive, and this has put the dilemma in a new focus – is it wise to invest in platforms, or can the same results be achieved with simply adding more sensors?

The Israeli air force (IAF) uses a large variety of sensors and pods on its combat aircraft. Many of these are locally developed and manufactured to answer specific operational needs.

The list is mostly classified, but some of the systems can be discussed – with restrictions. The pods used by the IAF almost daily in intelligence gathering missions enable the force to stay fully updated about threats from enemy countries.

High resolution imagery is still the main way of collecting data, but in recent years – and at a growing pace – synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is pushing it aside, for obvious reasons.

SAR sensors allow undisturbed observation capabilities. A variety of SAR radar system is manufactured by Elta, an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) subsidiary.

The Rafael Litening targeting pod is a good example that was “born” at the right time. This system has become a best-seller among many air forces in recent years. Rafael has so far sold well over 1,000 such pods.

The demand for targeting pods has increased mainly because of good results from its use in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan

Litening combines all the targeting capabilities needed for a combat aircraft to perform and attack in a single pod.

The latest generation of the Litening uses an advanced thermal sensor, based on a focal-plane array of 640×480 detectors, operating at the medium thermal band (3-5μ).

The pod processes the video signals in digital video format, enabling electronic stabilisation and image enhancement, resulting in a very sharp image even at extended range. Utilisation of digital video also enables advanced processing and future upgrades.

Another unclassified example is Elbit Systems Electro-optics’ Long-Range Oblique Photography (LOROP) system, which provides high-resolution imagery while allowing the reconnaissance aircraft to remain a long stand-off distance from the target. This is important when the aircraft is not able to fly over the photographed area.

The list of classified sensors and pods is long. If the F-35 really is the last combat aircraft to be developed by the USA, the question I posed will have to get an explicit answer in years to come.

The fleet of current-service combat aircraft like F-15s and F-16s will undoubtedly continue to fly for many years – and I mean many.

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