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Super Hornet Tests New Infrared Air to Air Targeting Sensor

The new IRST weapons pod mounted on a F/A-18 F Super Hornet at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. US Navy Photo

The new IRST weapons pod mounted on a F/A-18 F Super Hornet at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy has test flown a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet equipped with a new Lockheed Martin-built Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor pod for the first time. The test flight took place on Feb. 11 at Edwards AFB, Calif.

“IRST will transform the way the Super Hornet conducts air-to-air operations and allows the fleet to dominate the skies in all threat environments,” said Capt. Frank Morley, the Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager in a Feb. 18 press release. “With the successful completion of the IRST first flight, we are looking forward to moving on to the next steps required to field this invaluable capability.”

The new air-to-air sensor, which is mounted inside a modified 480-gallon centerline drop tank, was developed as a direct response to evermore-capable threat electronic-warfare systems. Of particular concern to the Pentagon is the proliferation of advanced Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jammers, which can degrade friendly radar performance and have the potential to blind the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM’s onboard radar-seeker.

The new IRST pod, which according to Lockheed is a next-generation version of the F-14D Tomcat’s AN/AAS-42 sensor, would afford the Super Hornet “an alternate air-to-air targeting system in a high-threat electronic-attack environment.”

Unlike like a radar, which uses pulses of radio waves to detect targets, the IRST is a passive sensor that uses long-wave infrared to find its quarry. Additionally, because the IRST is passive, there are no telltale emissions to alert the enemy to the Super Hornet’s presence.

According to the Navy, the new IRST system can simultaneously track multiple targets at extended ranges. However, infrared sensors are highly sensitive to environmental conditions and performance can vary wildly depending upon the weather.

The new IRST pod, which is expected to be deployed to the fleet in 2017, is not the only Navy effort intended to counter advances in threat electronic warfare capability.

The service is also working on a new Block III version of the AIM-9X Sidewinder that would increase the range of the missile by some 60 percent. That would allow pilots to use the new missile to supplement the AIM-120D for some types of beyond visual range engagements where there is heavy enemy jamming present.

According to NAVAIR, the AIM-9X Block III is expected to become operational in 2024.


  • 2IDSGT

    An interesting collusion between LM and Boeing… given how hard the latter is trying to undermine F-35 sales.

    Oh well, it’s still a very good idea.

  • vincedc

    Seems like a lot of resources that won’t work on a cloudy day.

  • displacedjim

    Makes the label “drop tank” a bit optimistic. I like the sound of the greatly increased range of the AIM-9X BlockIII as I’m assuming that should really open up its off-boresight LOAL envelope for those aircraft equipped to make use of it (I’m looking at you, Mr. F-35).

  • John S. in St. St Petersburg

    Longwave IRST also works well against radar eluding stealth as it senses heat generated by an aerodynamic body flying through the air. This system was integrated on all F-14D’s before their retirement, so development cost should be minimal and operational use well understood.

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    It really is a critical development together with PASSIVE AESA with link 16 hopefully that area has to see major a improvement (there is article posted on A-10 as a platform to increase agility and the time of response. It would be critical to sum multiple platforms in the theatre as a SINGLE radome F-22 is capable an is doing it.. royally. Russians are putting a major effort in that direction as well. That technological approach came from Radio Astronomy, Multiple antennas across the globe become as a single array radome. My understanding that skin on the F-22 is a active-passive radome as well and multiple platforms in the area share and logarithmically increase 3D precision and distance of acquisition. In the passive mode it can utilize local broadcasting and use their beam to track the target. So EO/IR is the extremely important confirmation sensor especially in the very well electronically active-intensive environments. Excellent idea and great future for that technology.