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Pod Turns Pilots Into Iraq 'Beat Cops'

Staff Sgt. Thomas Morgan, 416th Flight Test Squadron avionics specialist and Senior Airman Leonard Harvin, 416th FLTS electrician, load the Sniper targeting pod on an F-16 Fighting Falcon, in preparation for a specialized Laser Mask Test. (Photo by Tom Reynolds)

Washington (UPI) June 30, 2005
It turns out one of the best methods of finding roadside bombs in Iraq may be U.S. Air Force pilots.

Pilots recently returned from four months in Iraq say a new targeting pod -- an optical camera and infrared sensor housed in a long tube affixed under the wing of an F-15E - built by Lockheed Martin dramatically improved their ability to help troops on the ground.

The Air Force has been largely sidelined in the war in Iraq. Fighting a counterinsurgency requires boots on the ground more than it does bombs on target.

Indeed, the entire 494th Fighter Squadron based at Lakenheath, Britain, dropped just eight bombs over the course of 120 days in Iraq, said its commander Lt. Col. Daniel Debree. But the F-15E squadron ran 787 reconnaissance missions over the heads of soldiers and Marines from January to May.

The Sniper pod, which is still in operational testing, empowered Air Force pilots to serve as "beat cops" - scanning terrain around U.S. troops to look for tell-tale signs of dug in or hidden improvised explosive devices and fleeing fighters.

Roadside bombs and car bombs now inflict about 70 percent of the injuries and deaths on U.S. forces in Iraq.

Capt. Joseph Siberski, a weapons systems officer in the squadron, told of an incident last April in Mosul. Ground troops had gotten a tip from an Iraqi that an improvised explosive device, or IED, may have been hidden at a certain location.

One young pilot - a lieutenant - using the Sniper pod's infrared camera to tune into displaced dirt identified a carefully dug, squared-off hole in the ground from the cockpit of his plane.

He then glanced out the window and saw a group of Iraqi men emerging from the tree line. He alerted an Army Stryker team to the men's presence, and two soldiers approached to talk to the group.

They were eventually taken into detention, discovered in the woods behind them were 150 C-4 shaped charges, washing machine timers and other equipment commonly used against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"The traditional thing we are used to doing is providing ordnance," Debree acknowledged. "Here we're more like cops on the beat than traditional F-15s."

There are 14 Sniper pods now in Iraq, according to Air Force officials. The 10 assigned to the 494th fighter squadron have been returned to Lockheed Martin for evaluation, repairs and retrofitting with new equipment.

The pods were scheduled to make their operational debut this month, but they were rushed out of operational testing to deploy with the squadron last winter as the IED problem continued to grow in Iraq. The 10 pods logged 5,500 operational flying hours and performed, in Debree's words, superbly.

Subsequent operational test have revealed maintenance problems with the pods that earned them the label of "operationally unsuitable" from the Pentagon's independent testing office, Air Force officials said.

As those maintenance problems are addressed - or accepted by the Air Force as a reasonable risk given the apparent advantages of the pod -- the Air Force is moving forward with plans to purchase 300 for a program cost of $820 million through 2011.

Debree said the pods - which have four times the range of the Lantirn pod they are slated to replace - offer another useful feature: an infrared marker.

A pilot flying above a target - for instance, a house being raided by U.S. forces - has a bird's eye view as well as an infrared sensor that could alert it to anyone fleeing the scene on the ground. The pilot could then engage the IR marker - essentially a light - on the target.

The marker would only be visible to someone wearing night-vision goggles, so the person on the run would not know he had been spotted. Troops on the ground wearing goggles would suddenly see a beam of light from the sky, and could follow it to their quarry.

In another adjustment to the untraditional battlefield that Iraq has become, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper last year offered up C-130 aircraft to transport supplies within Iraq. The flights lift some of the burden of traveling on Iraq's dangerous roads from the Army and Marines Corps.

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