Raytheon has won a $298 million contract to provide the first 88full-rate production Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pods to the US Navy, even though critical components await a new round of operational testing this spring.

While the ATFLIR's current configuration provides three to five times the target acquisition capability of existing systems, it lacks the promised laser-spot tracker and electro-optical sensor. Both features were switched off during an operational test and evaluation period last autumn. Programme officials say the ATFLIR passed all tests, but concede that the full configuration has yet to be reviewed.

Naval Air Systems Command F/A-18 programme manager Capt B D Gaddis says the operational test phase was performed according to plan. The ATFLIR's baseline requirements included provisions for the laser spot tracker and electro-optical sensor. But the navy altered it three years ago, adding a block upgrade programme in which the features would not become available until the first upgrade cycle.

Gaddis attributed the delayed integration to the complexity of the software development effort. The hardware for both features is already built into the existing pods.

A follow-on operational test and evaluation phase is due to begin in March or April, Gaddis says, allowing the navy to assess the complete configuration for the first time.

As well as introducing an improved sensor, the ATFLIR consolidates three pod systems into a single package, freeing fuselage space for extra weapons. The navy plans to offer the pod first for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, then its F/A-18C/Ds. The official plan is to buy 574 ATFLIR pods. But the ongoing integration of the US Marine Corps and US Navy tactical fighter fleets is expected to reduce the order to about 530 pods, says Gaddis. The first contract, awarded last week, includes two production lots and support equipment.

Source: Flight International