A Cobra Night Targeting System - Finally!
SUBJECT AREA Aviation
Title: A Cobra Night Targeting System - Finally!
Author: MAJ M. L. Steele, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: Despite a warfighting philosophy that demands
continuous pressure on the enemy, the AH-1 Cobra helicopter
has always been a daytime only participant. The new Night
Targeting System (NTS) now being evaluated will go a long
way in correcting this serious deficiency.
Background: The AH-1 Cobra gunship has been in the
Marine inventory since the late 1960s. Although
improvements have been made in many of its capabilities
through a series of models and updates, the ability to fly
and fight at night has remained negligible. The NTS will
provide a laser for self designating targets for the
onboard Hellfire missile and for rangefinding. The system
also includes a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) for night
operations and a television camera (TVC) for day
operations. There is a video cassette recorder (VCR) that
can record video from the FLIR and TVC.
Recommendation: The Marine corps needs a night fighting
system. This one, though not perfect, will fit the need
A COBRA NIGHT TARGHTING SYSTIM - FINALLY !
Thesis: Despite a warfighting philosophy that demands the
Marine Corps fight as well at night as during the day, the
AH-1 Cobra is a daytime only participant due to the lack of
a night fighting system. This deficiency is about to be
overcome with the addition of a Night Targeting System
(NTS) to the AH-1W.
II. Current Situation
A. AH-1 night fighting deficiencies
1. Lack of a laser
2. Limitations to the TOW missile
B. Available Technology - AH-64 Apache
III. Night Targeting System
B. System Description
2. Direct View Optics (DVO)
3. Television Camera (TVC)
4. Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR)
5. Video Cassette Recorder (VCR)
6. Displays in the Telescopic Sight Unit (TSU)
8. Associated control boxes
C. Problems with NTS
1. Lack of crew coordination
2. Increased workload
D. Product Improvement Program
A COBRA NIGHT TARGETING SYSTEM - FINALLY !
MIKE'S BIG PAPER
Maneuver warfare is a warfighting
philosophy that seeks to shatter the
enemy's cohesion through a series of
rapid, violent, and unexpected actions
which create a turbulent and rapidly
deteriorating situation with which he
The above definition, from FMFM-1, Warfighting, lays
out a new style of fighting for the United States Marine
Corps. The enemy will no longer be overcome by sheer
firepower in an attrition fashion. Rather, the enemy will
be overcome by a combination of maneuver, firepower, and
increased tempo. Although not implicitly stated, darkness
and bad weather cannot be allowed to detract from our
effectiveness, thus saving an enemy who might be on the
verge of collapse. Marine forces must be as deadly at
night as they are during the day.
Unfortunately for the AH-1 Cobra helicopter
community, darkness and bad weather have consistently
limited the community's contributions to the destruction of
the enemy. The AH-1 was created in the late 1960s as a
result of combat in Vietnam. The Marine Corps has gone
through the G, J, and T models of the aircraft before
taking delivery of the current Ah-1W model in 1986.
This model is a considerable improvement ever its
predecessors in a variety of areas. It has improved, more
powerful engines, a rudimentary heads-up display (HUD), and
better avionics. It fires the laser guided Hellfire
missile, in addition to the Tube-launched, Optically
tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) missiles, 2.75 rockets, and 20mm
cannon that its forerunners utilized.
One area that has not been improved is the night
flying and night target engagement capabilities. The only
system that comes into play at night that is not used in
the day is the pilot's use of night vision goggles (NVGs).
The aircraft itself has little night flying capability over
and above the earlier models. The Hellfire missile can be
fired at night, but since the aircraft has no onboard laser
designator, it lacks the capability to designate targets
for itself. It must depend on another agency to provide
laser illumination on target.
The TOW missile must be wired guided to target. This
is done by the copilot/gunner in the forward cockpit who
maintains crosshairs on the target through a Telescopic
Sight Unit (TSU) on the nose of the aircraft. The TSU
cannot be used at night unless the target can be
illuminated by flares. In a mobile, high tempo environment
such as maneuver warfare, it is easily imaginable that the
limitations on the Hellfire and TOW missile systems would
preclude their use except in preplanned missions, well
coordinated with other units under perfect conditions. In
short, the AH-1W in 1992 may be limited to employing only
20mm cannon fire and 2.75 rockets at night, just like the
AH-1J in 1968.
This shortfall in capability has not gone unnoticed.
The after action reports from several combined arms
exercises (CAXs) conducted at Marine Corps Air Ground
Combat Center, 29 Palms, California, have noted this
shortcoming. An item from October 1988 is typical:
Although lunar illumination was 100%,
the aircraft could not acquire targets
and were forced to abort the mission.
. . . Current aircraft have very limited
night flight capability and almost no
night ordnance delivery capability. The
AH-1 Tactical Manual states "at range of
more than 800 meters, even 100% lunar
illumination is insufficient for target
acquisition/missile tracking." (2)
In operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the comments were
Marine Corps attack helicopters must
have a viable night targeting/FLIR
system, optics that offer much greater
magnification, and a laser
rangefinder/designator. The AH-1W
offers no viable point target
capability at night. The helicopter
has no ability to self-designate and
relies primarily on ground designators
for Hellfire. 13x power magnification
(in the TSU) is not nearly enough. (3)
The item concludes with a recommendation to field an
updated targeting system with night capability coupled with
a laser rangefinder/designator.
The technology for night flying and night fighting
has been available for years. The U.S. Army's AH-64 Apache
helicopter has been built with these technologies to enable
it to operate in this demanding environment. The pilot of
an Apache uses the Pilot Night Vision Sensor (PNVS), which
provides a night pilotage and navigation aid. The system,
mounted on the aircraft's nose and displayed in both
cockpits, provides Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR),
providing a 40 degree field of view that slues to 90
degrees either side of the aircraft's centerline. This
system permits thermal imagery of the terrain for
navigation, terrain flight, and weapons sighting. Either
the pilot or the copilot/gunner may control this system.
It has no magnification capability.(4)
In the front seat, the copilot/gunner uses the Target
Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS), mounted in a nose
turret below the PNVS. The TADS has direct view optics and
a high resolution day television system for day operations
and a FLIR for night engagements. This system is operated
by the copilot/gunner; however, the video can be viewed in
either cockpit. The system also incorporates a laser
rangefinder/designator, laser spot tracker, and automatic
target tracking. The day television system magnifies up to
126x power. The direct view optics magnifies up to 18x
power. The FLIR magnifies up to 17x power. The Apache
entered production in 1982(5). Yet, ten years later, the
Marine Corps' AH-1 airframe still has no significant night
Thus, the need for a night targeting system and the
technology to accomplish this has been obvious for several
years. The reason a system has not been fielded before is
a common one: a lack of money. There have always been
This is not to say that the Marine corps has totally
ignored the need for a system. The obvious first answer is
to merely incorporate the AH-64 systems into the AH-1W.
This was not possible due to the physical size of the Army
systems. The entire nose and both cockpits of the AH-1W
would have to be reconfigured to accept the systems. The
cost would be prohibitive. Additionally, the AH-64 does
not carry the TOW missile, only the Hellfire. The Marine
Corps desired to retain the TOW capability, so the Army
TADS was unacceptable.(6)
The Marine Corps has searched for an alternative for
much of the last decade. Indeed, competitive briefings for
a night targeting system took place in August 1985. After
evaluating all the systems, both domestic and foreign made,
and defining all specifications, a contract was signed with
the Tamam Industries of Israel in September 1988. The
Kollsman Corporation of Connecticut is also involved in the
production. Preliminary design review was in the spring of
1989. Critical design review occurred in November 1989
with the first Night Targeting System (NTS) delivered in
January 1991. Today, the system is undergoing testing and
The NTS is based on incorporating a FLIR,
autotracker, and a television camera into existing TSU
components. Tamam Industries has provided the two
prototypes currently in testing and evaluation. After
testing is complete and a final design accepted, the
Kollsman Corporation will make the next eighteen examples,
beginning at the end of the fiscal year. Starting in
fiscal year 1993, Kollsman and Tamam will produce 24
systems in competition. The winner of this competition
will produce the majority of the remaining 148 systems
currently on order through fiscal year 1998. The funds for
these systems are already programmed into the budget:
FY 93 94 95 96 97 98
$ (mil) 56.1 85.9 78.1 66.2 23.6 30.1(8)
The NTS is a fire control system that provides the
ability for the crew to detect, acquire, track, lock on,
range, and designate targets under all conditions, day and
night. The system provides weapon aiming, observation,
built-in system test (BIT), automatic inflight
boresighting, automatic tracking, and front cockpit display
The weapon aiming function enables accurate fire to
be delivered on a specific point or area target. The NTS
weapon aiming equipment consists of a laser designator for
Hellfire missiles and other laser guided munitions, laser
range finding, error detection for Tow missiles, and
gimbals direction for the 20mm nose gun. The neodymium YAG
laser is a solid state laser that can be used for range
finding or can be given a four digit laser code for guiding
laser directed weapons to a specific target. The laser
system is mounted on the top of the TSU and fired through
the narrow field of view of the direct view optics (DVO).
Actual laser range is classified.(9)
The eyes of the Night Targeting System are in the
Telescopic Sight Unit (TSU) in the front cockpit. The TSU
was introduced with the addition of TOW missiles to the
Cobra arsenal in the late l97Os. The TSU is used by the
copilot/gunner to guide TOW missiles and aim the 20mm gun.
The NTS is essentially an elaborate add-on system which
operates through the TSU (figure 2).
The observation function enables the copilot/gunner
to locate targets from a standoff distance. It uses DVO,
television camera (TVC), and thermal energy (FLIR). The
DVO is basically the same system that has been in all
TOW-equipped AH-1 aircraft since the TOW system was
introduced in the l97Os. The monocular view is, in effect,
a gyrostabilized telescope that provides 2x magnification
with a 28 degree field of view in low power, or 13x
magnification with a 4.6 degree field of view in high
power. This is how the TOW missile has been sighted and
fired. Since the system lets in only 30% of available
light, it is this limitation that prevents TOW employment
at night unless there is artificial illumination.(10)
When the copilot/gunner desires to use the TVC or
FLIR, he activates a switch, rotating a mirror within the
TSU which displays the selected video image. Now the
copilot/gunner sees the cathode ray tube (CRT) vice the
DVO. The CRT displays video signals from the FLIR, TVC, or
VCR for the copilot/gunner. The CRT is attached to the
existing optical ray tube (ORT). The switch on the left
hand grip allows the copilot/gunner to choose between
direct view optics provided by the ORT or the video Images
on the CRT provided by the FLIR, TVC, or VCR.
The TVC produces an NVG compatible green image in the
visible light spectrum. The TVC allows for automatic
tracking of targets. It is viewed as a stepping stone for
product improvement which will eventually result in a video
display with 125x magnification. The current TVC has a 34x
magnification with a 1.6 degree azimuth by 1.2 degree
elevation field of view. It also has a 5.3x magnification
giving a 10 degree by 7.5 field of view.(12)
The FLIR operates in the infrared spectrum. The
infrared energy is scanned across a 120-element detector
strip. The signal is processed into a two dimensional
video image and displayed onto the 11'x 1" cathode ray tube
(CRT) viewed by the copilot/gunner. The FLIR has four
magnifications. Wide field of view (FOV) is .6
magnification and a 24.3 x 18.4 degrees FOV. Medium FOV is
2.1x magnification with a 7.1 x 5.3 degrees FOV. Narrow
FOV is 7.5x magnification providing a 2.0 x 15 degrees
FOV. The last FOV is zoom which gives 15x magnification by
electronically doubling the FOV on a 2 to 1 ratio. This
will cause resolution to be degraded. Range of the FLIR is
The NTS incorporates a video cassette recorder (VCR)
that uses standard VHS tapes to record what FLIR or TVC is
viewing. This tape can be replayed in the helicopter
itself by the copilot/gunner and also be viewed upon return
from a mission.(14)
When looking into the TSU, the copilot/gunner will
see a variety of information in addition to the magnified
view. When using the ORT for direct viewing, the
copilot/gunner also sees four indicator lights that,
through blinking or steady illumination, indicate that the
targeting system is in auto track or predictor mode (light
a), that the laser is off or on (light b), that there are
multiple laser targets (light c), or the laser is offset
(light d). Centered between the lights, further
information is displayed in alpha-numeric form. This
includes go/fail for BIT, range to target from the laser
rangefinder/designator, a no valid return symbol if the
laser does not illuminate anything, count up timer during
laser designation, count up timer for TOW missile flight
time, and count down for Hellfire missile flight time or
TSU magnetic azimuth (figure 3).(15)
The ORT also displays three small flags at the 12
o'clock, 3 o'clock, and 9 o'clock positions. These flags
indicate that the switches are in the correct position for
TOW missile launch (the attack flag), that the aircraft is
in prelaunch constraints to allow a TOW missile to be
launched (the ready flag), or that the weapons selection
switch on the TOW Hellfire control panel is in TSU/guns
position for employing the 2Omm cannon (the GUNS flag).
When viewing the CRT in the TSU, a plethora of
information is presented (figure 4). The information
covers current conditions and setup of the NTS, status of
the laser, weapons selected for employment, aircraft
positional relationship to target, in addition to the
visual display in the center.(16)
Automatic inflight boresighting is initiated by using
the BIT feature. This system boresights the two aiming
devices (goniometer for TOW missiles and laser designator
for Hellfires) to the FLIR and TVC lines of sight. The
boresighting takes up to 120 seconds to complete. Tracking
targets can be done manually by the copilot/gunner using
the existing sight hand control (a joystick manipulated
with the right hand). Tracking can also be done
automatically by the television or FLIR tracker which is
engaged by the copilot/gunner by using a switch on the left
Although the TSU and its attached NTS equipment is
the interface between the NTS and flight crew, there are
several other items that are required to make NTS work.
In the front cockpit, in addition to the TSU and its
associated gear, there are three more control items (figure
5). The laser range panel (LRP) sets minimum laser range.
The far right switch activates the emergency frequencies
for the two radios in the AH-1. The cockpit control unit
panel (CCUP) at the copilot/gunner's left knee organizes
all electrical signals and converts them for the serial
data base, controls status lights displayed in the TSU, and
controls the VCR. The laser code panel (LCP) sets the four
digit laser designation code. The laser mode switch allows
the laser code to be selected by the LCP in manual position
or the laser code will be
matched to the priority missile code in automatic
Other equipment that comprises NTS is spread
throughout the aircraft (figure 1). The VCR Is located in
the tail boom. The processing electronic box (PEB)
controls boresighting procedures, operational logic, BIT
control, and tracking loops. The FLIR electronic box (FEB)
takes the FLIR's 120 detector elements which sweep and
interlace to provide 240 lines of information. It then
electronically processes those 240 lines into 480 lines for
viewing on the 1" x 1" CRT19.
The NTS is not a perfect answer to the night fighting
shortcomings of the AH-1. The most glaring defect is in
the area of crew coordination. The only addition to the
rear cockpit provided by this system is a light that
illuminates when the laser is on. Historically, the most
experienced pilot flies in the rear seat in combat. Since
the rear seat has no repeater, the pilot never knows what
the copilot/gunner is looking at except by the
copilot/gunner's verbal description. The NTS will allow
engagement at night or under adverse weather conditions at
the range of several kilometers, so the pilot in the rear
seat will rarely, if ever, see the target. Thus, the
commitment to engage targets, the order in which targets
will be attacked, and even if the aircraft is within the
parameters required for engagement will essentially be
based on information provided by a relatively young,
inexperienced copi lot.
Looking into the TSU is much like using a set of
binoculars. Hence, the copilot/gunner cannot wear night
vision goggles (NVGs). The pilot in the rear seat will be
using NVGs while the copilot/gunner will be looking through
the telescopic sight unit (TSU). Crew coordination
involving such items as flight safety, back up lookout
doctrine, navigation, etc., will be nonexistent as the
copilot/gunner will be unable to assist in these duties
without wearing NVGs.
Although the system provides for integration with the
tactical navigation system recently installed in the AH-1,
this has not been done. The system does not have the
ability to show the AH-1 or target locations as depicted in
the lower right corner of figure 4.
Since the NTS is basically an add-on system to the
existing cockpit, the extra equipment further reduces an
already cramped front seat. The lack of integration gives
the copilot/gunner more dials, numbers, and information to
add to his workload, and more switches to work (or forget
to work). To activate the ordnance system and fire a
Hellfire missile, there are 51 steps that the two-man air
crew must perform.
Another weakness is that firing the Hellfire missile
in the Lock-On-Before-Launch mode is now a two-man
operation. In the front seat, the Hellfire is fired by
depressing a button on the cyclic stick. If the
copilot/gunner is lasing and tracking a target, both hands
are occupied - the left hand is on the left hand grip
firing the laser and the right hand is using the stick hand
control to aim the laser. The pilot must fire the missile
from the rear seat. This procedure would not be difficult
but would require coordination and practice.
There is a Product Improvement Program already in
development for NTS. This program centers on three
stages. The first stage would be to digitize all TOW
electronics, thus reducing the number of black boxes and
This would be followed by the second stage, which
includes removing the optical ray tube (ORT) out of the TSU
and replacing it with a multi-functional display CRT to
reduce and simplify the current equipment and crew
workload. The weight saved by removing the ORT would allow
for the placement of two cameras on gimbals in the TSU
turret on the aircraft nose. This would provide better
stabilization and increased focal length which could be
used to produce a zoom feature up to 125x magnification.
This last stage would also incorporate any improvements
made in FLIR technology.
The NTS is state of the art incorporated into an
existing system which limits its capability. Where the
AH-64 achieves its performance through more detectors (180)
and larger FLIR focal length, the NTS is newer technology
that closes the performance gap with electronic processing
of the FLIR imagery. The NTS is relatively cheap. Cost
estimates are around half a million dollars per system,
excluding research and development. (20) It is here now.
The AH-1 community has waited long enough for a system that
allows a reasonable night fighting capability. The NTS
will enable the Cobra to use all its weapons at night at
maximum standoff range and become a viable asset in
maneuver warfare 24 hours a day.
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1. United States Marine Corps, Warfighting. Fleet Marine Force Manual #1,
MAR 1989, 59. (Department of the Navy, Headquarters United States Marine
Corps, Washington, D.C.).
2. Author unknown, Night Close In Fire Support (CIFS), Marine Corps
Lessons System (MCLLS), Report #21079-61032. (Studies and Analysis Branch,
Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Warfighting Center, Marine Corps Combat
Development Command (MCCDC), Quantico, VA).
3. Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, The AH-IW's Shortcomings
at Night, MCLLS Report #30642-83172. (Studies and Analysis Branch, MAGTF Warfighting
Center, MCCDC, Quantico, VA).
4. Wendell W. Shivers and Jeffrey W. VanRope, "AH-64 - A Total System
for Battle" (ninth in series), U.S. Army Aviation Digest, March 1988, 14-21.
5. Norman B. Hirsch, "AH-64 - A Total System for Battle" (seventh in a
series), U.S. Army Aviation Digest, July 1986, 3-9.
6. Maior Mark Gibson, Naval Air Systems Command, interview by author.
Quantico, VA, 13 March 1992.
7. Naval Air Systems Command, Program briefing handout, March 1992.
(Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.).
9. Naval Air Systems Command, Proposed change to AH-1Navy Air Training
and Operational Procedures Standardizations (NATOPS) Manual, NAVAIR 01-H1ACC-1.1.
(Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.).
10. Naval Air Systems Command, AH-1 NATOPS Manual, NAVAIR 01-H1ACC-1.1.
(Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.).
11. Proposed Change to AH-IW NATOPS Manual, NAVAIR O1-H1ACC-1. 1.
12. Major Glen Walters, AH-1 test pilot, interview by author. Telephone,
Quantico, VA, 3 April 1992.
14. Proposed Change to AHI-W NATOPS Manual, NAVAIR01-H1ACC-1.1.
15. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Program briefing handout,
17. Proposed Change to AH-IW NATOPS Manual, NAVAIR01-H1ACC-1. 1.
19. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Program briefing handout,
20. Major Glen Walters, AH-1 test pilot, interview by author. Telephone,
Quantico, VA, 3 April 1992.
1. The AH-IW Shortcominas at Niaht. Marine Corps Lessons Learned
System (MCLLS) Report #30632-83172. Studies and Analysis Branch, Marine
Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Warfighting Center, Marine Corps Combat
Development Center (MCCDC), Quantico, VA.
2. Gibson, Mark, MAJ, USMC. Interview by MAJ M. L. Steele, USMC,
13 March 1992.
3. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps. Program briefing handout,
March 1992. Department of the Navy, Washington D.C.
4. Hirsch, Norman B. "The AH-64: A Total System for Battle."
(seventh in a series) U.S. Army Aviation Digest, July 1986, 3-9.
5. Naval Air Systems Command. Program briefing handout, March 1992.
Department of the Navy, Washington D.C.
6. Naval Air Systems Command. Proposed change to AH-1 Navy Air Training
and Operational Procedures Standardizations (NATOPS) Manual, NAVAIR O1-H1ACC-1.1.
Department of the Navy, Washington D.C.
7. Night Close In Fire Support (CIFS). MCLLS Report #21079-61032.
Studies and Analysis Branch, MAGTF Warfighting Center, MCCDC, Quantico, VA.
8. Shivers, Wendell W. and Jeffrey W. VanRope. "The AH-64: A Total System
for Battle." (ninth in a series) U.S. Armv Aviation Diaest, March 1988,
9. WaIters, Glen, MAJ USMC. Interview conducted by MAJ M. L. Steele,
USMC, 3 April 1992.
10. Warfighting. Fleet Marine Force Manual #1, March 1989, 59.
Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy,
Washington D. C.
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