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TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System)

Tactical Reconnaissance is the oldest mission in Naval Aviation. It predates carrier aviation and the need for timely reconnaissance is still a key requirement for operational commander. Various platforms have been used to fulfill the reconnaissance mission, from old biplanes to the modern day supersonic F-14 Tomcat.

In the early 70's, NAVAIRSYSCOM planners realized that the RA-5C and RF-8G would have to be replaced. A reconnaissance pod was suggested that would fit on an existing aircraft with minor modifications. The Tomcat was selected due to its impressive offensive/defensive performance capabilities. As an interim system, the TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System) pod was OPEVAL'ed in 1979, with the first operational deployment done by the Jolly Rogers of VF-84 in 1981.

The F-14 enjoys a variety of advantages; great cockpit visibility, good speed performance (especially in the F-14B/D), good INS/AWG-9 software (to be taken with a grain of salt) and quick conversion to a fighter. Missions today are normally flown unescorted or with another F-14 TARPS bird as a section. Used extensively during the Persian Gulf War, Mogadishu and during the Bosnian crisis, usually the only imagery available to the Battle Force Commanders were taken by F-14 crews.

The TARPS pod houses three sensors: A two-position (vertical and forward oblique) KS-87 frame camera, a KA-99 low altitude panoramic camera, and an AAD-5 infrared reconnaissance sensor. Together, these sensors make the pod a very effective low-to-medium altitude reconnaissance system. The TARPS pod is carried by the F-14 on weapon station #5 using an adaptor. It poses minimal penalty on aircraft performance and makes little demand on the aircraft, only power, signal, and environmental control connections are required.

The 17-foot, 1,850-pound gray pod is actually a protective aluminum case manufactured by Grumman. Inside its shell, three camera sensors are mounted in sturdy equipment racks. They aim down at passing terrain, using infrared to capture images at night. In the air, the aluminum pod protects the cameras from vibrations and soaking by hydraulic fluid and JP-5 jet fuel. It must withstand buffeting by winds at twice the speed of sound. When a Tomcat returns from a reconnaissance mission, the pod is opened and film is rushed to processing. The shipboard record for processing turnaround, from landing to finished print, is 13 minutes. 3,350 feet of new film is placed in the pod, and it is ready to go again.

The front of the pod carries is a two-position (vertical and forward oblique) KS-87 frame camera. Aft of the frame camera is a KA-99 low-altitude panoramic camera, followed by a AAD-5 imaging infrared sensor. The pod is carried on the F-14's #5 weapon station (the right rear Phoenix station). F-14 TARPS remains the fleet's primary organic recce asset, and continues to respond to USMC, SOF (Special Operating Forces), and JFACC (Joint Forces Air Component Commander) requirements.

Since the early 1980s, F-14s have had provision for the attachment of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System, carrying optical and infrared cameras and permitting the aircraft to perform the photo reconnaissance role without degrading its performance in other roles. The only modifications required are wiring changes and cockpit readouts. In 1989, the Navy decided to phase out the F-14's reconnaissance mission in favor of using F/A-18 Hornets. During Operation Desert Storm in January-February 1991, however, F-14s flew 781 TARPS missions.

Beginning in April 1993, the Navy has flown many F-14 Tactical Aerial Reconnaissance Pod (TARPS) sorties over Bosnia-Hercegovina as part of Operation Deny Flight. Operating from aircraft carriers stationed in the Adriatic Sea, the TARPS aircraft photographed hundreds of square miles of disputed territory, using thousands of feet of film. After the aircraft recovered aboard the carrier, Intelligence Specialists provided the commander and other senior decisionmakers the location and types of belligerent arms, equipment, and forces. The Intelligence Specialists also produced annotated TARPS photos for carrier and shore-based strike team leaders to assist in planning potential contingency operations. Navy F-14 TARPS provided the only U.S. tactical reconnaissance asset over Bosnia, thus providing an invaluable service to the European Command who were able to show the unclassified TARPS pictures to the international press.

Units also responded to the Mississippi River Valley caused by record rainfalls in July 1993. In a two-day mission requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, two Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters based at Naval Air Station Oceana (from Fighter Squadron 103 and Fighter Squadron 143) flew reconnaissance missions over the St. Louis, Mo., area. The fighters, equipped with Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) cameras, flew additional missions over cities in Iowa. The TARPS photography will enable rescue and relief workers to determine the hardest-hit areas, helping to identify areas requiring assistance.

TARPS pods are routinely carried under the fuselage of F-14D Tomcat fighter jets as they fly Operation Southern Watch missions, enforcing the "no-fly" zone over Southern Iraq. The heat of the Arabian Gulf, where average noon temperatures hover in the high 90s, can cause some simple equipment problems. When film is moved from an air conditioned area out to the flight deck it can fog, jam, or adhere to surfaces around it. Film transport and shuttle speeds are also simple fixes. But other "glitches" are more challenging, requiring circuit card troubleshooting.

GENSER JDISS (Joint Deployable Intelligence Support System) and high quality digitizers have been used to send tactical reconnaissance imagery acquired by F-14 TARPS to recipients in soft copy in near-real time. This capability eliminated the requirement to make multiple hard copies in the photo lab and fly them off to a shore site for further distribution.

The TARPS digital imagery (DI) electro-optical (EO) improvement represents an interim, but limited, capability. However, there is a need to move to a production EO capability with a larger format backplane that provides both better resolution and a larger target area field-of-view. The TARPS CD development would provide such a capability at significantly less cost than a Navy purchase of the Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS).

Based on the successful results from the interim DI efforts, CD will provide an EO tactical manned reconnaissance capability to replace the current film-based F-14 pods. The Navy plans to build 24 Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System-Digital Imagery (TARPS-DI) pods by 2003 at a cost of between $6-8 million. One of the principal uses for TARPS-DI will be to locate and identify hostile targets so they can be quickly neutralized by aircraft, cruise missile or naval gunfire strikes. Each image displays the latitude and longitude of the location photographed. That information would be invaluable in a combat situation.

The advantages of TARPS imagery over satellite reconnaissance is that the satellites make one pass over an area, and have to be reprogrammed. With new TARPS digital imagery, anything a jet with a pod 'sees' can be sent back by radio signal. Specialists can interpret the images and use it almost immediately, and can send the pilot back for another look.

The Navy's 211 F-14As are due to be phased out of service by 2004. Of the 13 existing F-14A squadrons, six are at Miramar and seven are at Naval Air Station Oceana, VA. The Navy's four F-14D Super Tomcat squadrons were all based at NAS Miramar, CA. Miramar based squadrons are currently moving to Oceana. By 1 October 1997, NAS Miramar will transition to MCAS Miramar. The F-14D, which rolled off the production line in the early 90s, has upgraded avionics and a more powerful engine.

Units flying TARPS missions during Desert Storm included:

VF-2 Bounty Hunters CVW-2 USS Constellation (CV-64) F-14D
VF-31 Tomcatters CVW-14 USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) F-14D
VF-32 Swordsmen CVW-3 USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) F-14A
VF-41 Black Aces CVW-8 USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) F-14A
VF-102 Diamondbacks CVW-1 USS George Washington (CVN-73) F-14B
VF-103 Jolly Rogers [ex Sluggers] CVW-17 USS Enterprise (CVN-65) F-14B
VF-143 Pukin' Dogs CVW-7 USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) F-14B
VF-154 Black Knights CVW-5 USS Independence (CV-62) F-14A
VF-201 Hunters CVWR-20 Naval Air Reserve no carrier F-14A
VF-211 Checkmates CVW-9 USS Nimitz (CVN-68) F-14A
VF-213 Black Lions CVW-11 USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) F-14A
SOURCE: Tomcat's Lair Current Status of F-14 Squadrons

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Page last modified: 28-07-2011 00:51:18 ZULU