Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tomcat Eyes

Observers are looking with excitement and anticipation at the development and eventual inclusion of an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor into the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  This will be a significant advance for the Hornet and broaden the aircraft’s capabilities.

The Boeing/Lockheed Block II IRST, under development in an $89M contract, will be housed in the nose section of an external centerline fuel tank.  Development is scheduled to be completed in 2020. (1)

"IRST is yet another addition to the Super Hornet Block II arsenal, and it will truly change the nature of the air-to-air fight," said Capt. Donald "BD" Gaddis, U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F and EA-18G program manager, PMA-265.” (2)

This revolutionary, first of a kind capability will …huh? … what?  …  Hold on a minute.  Someone is interrupting me.  What?  It what?  Back then? 

Uh, I’ve just been informed that this state of the art IR sensor may not be quite as revolutionary as I thought, having been lead to believe, by the Navy, that nothing like this has been achieved before.  Apparently, I’m told, the F-14 Tomcat had this sensor capability, and more, decades ago.  Okay, let’s take a look back and see what the ancient, outdated, hopelessly outclassed Tomcat had in the way of sensors.

The Tomcat’s non-radar sensors were mounted in distinctive chinpods under the nose. 

ALQ-100 E/F/G/H-Band Track-Breaker – The early F-14A had the ALQ-100 mounted under the nose.  While not a sensor, the electronic countermeasure device was a prominent chin-mount and I mention it for clarity.

ALR-23 IR Seeker - The early F-14A had an IR seeker in a chinpod mount.  The seeker could be slaved to the radar or used independently and was gimbal mounted and could be steered.  I’ve been unable to find much additional information about the sensor’s capabilities or how it was used tactically.

AXX-1 Television Camera System (TCS) – The Northrop TCS was an optical sensor consisting of a telescopic television imager and cockpit display and provided telescopic images of targets far beyond unaided visual range.  Identification ranges are stated to be 10 miles for small fighters and out to 85 miles for large bombers and cargo planes. (4)   The TCS had a 30 degree conical field of view and could be slewed at a rate of 30 degrees/second and was gyroscopically stabilized in pitch/yaw at up to 150 degrees/second.  Thus, the TCS was unaffected by the aircraft’s maneuvering within the field of view.  The TCS also had a tracking-lock capability to enable the target to be continuously followed.  Automatic scan-lock was another built in feature which allowed automatic target detection during continuous scanning.  The Tomcat’s AWG-9/71 radar could be slaved to the TCS or vice versa.  The TCS was first fitted to the late model F-14A.  Additional information is available in a summary report (5).

TCS System

AAS-42 IRST – A more advanced IR sensor, the AAS-42 appeared on the F-14D in 1990.  The sensor provided search and track capability as well as IR imagery.  From Deagel website,

“Operating in six discrete modes, the AN/AAS-42 provides the aircraft mission computer track file data on all targets while simultaneously providing infrared imagery to the cockpit display.” (3)

F-14D’s often utilized a potent side by side, dual combination of IRST and TCS which may have had detection ranges as much as 110+ miles, thereby greatly enhancing air-to-air targeting and useful missile launch ranges. (6)


While the Navy is loudly and proudly proclaiming the coming use of IRST on the F-18 Hornet, we see that the reality is that effective IR and optical sensors existed on the F-14 Tomcat long ago.  Why the Navy abandoned these sensors when the Hornet was developed is baffling.  Today, as we look at the F-35 and all its problems and costs, we view the Hornet fondly and think of it as a good, if not great, aircraft.  The reality is that the Hornet was a very compromised and, as regards combat effectiveness and range, a very ineffective aircraft.  The addition of IRST is a welcome development but, good grief, we had that and better in the F-14 many decades ago.  Even with the IRST, the Hornet will still lack the F-14’s highly effective TCS.

The eyes of the Tomcat were highly effective combat enhancers that the Navy is only now, and only partially, matching with the Hornet’s cobbled together IRST/fuel tank conglomeration. 

As the Soviet pilots of the era knew well, the eyes of the Tomcat were always on them.  We need to remember the capabilities we had decades ago and begin designing actual combat aircraft again that can at least match what we once had.  What passes for a combat aircraft today is a sad reflection of what once was.

Note:  I’m well aware that other aircraft in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s also had similar sensors – no need to list them in a comment.  Again, it just shows how far we’ve drifted away from actual combat aircraft design.


(1)Defense Systems website, “Navy integrates new F-18 infrared sensor”, Katherine Owens, 20-Jun-2017,

(2)Boeing website,

(4)Air Power Australia website, “Electro Optical Systems”, Carlo Kopp, Mar 1984,

(5)Forecast International,


  1. Well to be fair, there maybe wasn't a requirement and/or technical difficulties into mounting a AAS-42 IRST under a Hornets nose.

    BTW i don't like the idea of putting the IR sensor in front of the fuel tank, of course it seems practical, but what if for some reason you have to jettison the tank. So since the Super Hornet is bigger than the legacy Hornets i think it would be easier this time to install a IR system under the nose, perhaps taking space by decreasing the amount of ammo for the gun.

    LM came up with a pod IR system recently

  2. You go with a stand alone irst pod and it becomes a 500 pound blister attached to your once stealthy aircraft.

    You with an irst/drop tank pod and it becomes expendable at the merge.

    You integrate your irst into the air frame ala F-35 and by the time you are operational, your irst tech is 20 years old.

    Can't win, can't break even and you can't get out of the game.

    1. "You integrate your irst into the air frame ala F-35 and by the time you are operational, your irst tech is 20 years old.

      Can't win, can't break even and you can't get out of the game."

      Well, the Tomcat went from concept to operational in around 5 years. For starters we need to return to that kind of performance and I've previously outlined how to do that. Then, the Tomcat had a small IRST added to a chin-mount. No big deal. No big impact on flight performance. State of the art, for its time. The MiG-29 and various Soviet/Russian aircraft had IRST units "integrated" into the airframe and, again, both aircraft and sensor were state of the art.

      So, we can produce front line aircraft and state of the art sensors in a useful time frame. We've just forgotten how and, again, I've described how and why we've gotten this way and how we can return to what we had. It's not difficult but it does require a complete rethinking (or, more accurately, remembering) of our approach.

  3. I have also heard rumors that the Air Force got really pissed when some F-14s were able to track a F-117 in testing/exercises using their IRST pods.

  4. When I see some of the press releases, I sometimes wonder if its malicious or just ignorance.

    Not because you are in the service that you necessarily know much about the history of all weapon systems...I'm afraid this tendency to believe that everything is new and never invented before will only get worse.

  5. A neat summary of the situation, CNO. Thanks.

    Alas, it isn't even as positive a situation as we could expect, with deficiencies in the Block I IRST 'pod' delaying the fielding by several years.

    Here is a DOT&E report link (only 2 pages) and excerpt:

    "The Block I system will not be fielded and IOT&E did not begin in 2016 as planned.
    The Navy plans to hold the Block II Preliminary Design Review in May 2017 and begin IOT&E in 2020."

    So IOT&E will occur after the PLAAF field their 5th Gen J-20.

    And the detection aspect of the problem ignores the kill mechanism challenges. While there is talk of improving the underpowered AIM-9, I find it bizarre that no-one has proposed putting the effective IIR seeker from the AIM-9X onto the AIM-120 missile.

    This would give a USAF/USN analogue to the MICA/MICA-IR and the old-school Soviet mixed seeker missile families (AA-10 as a fairly modern example). It would allow passive engagement BVR on LO/VLO tracks equipped with DRFM jammers.

    1. The fascinating and educational aspect of this is that we had all this capability in the Tomcat and chose to give it up in the Hornet for, apparently, budgetary reasons. We built a front line aircraft to budgetary requirements rather than combat requirements! Why? Who at the time thought that was a good idea? How did business concerns eclipse combat concerns? And, why today, when faced with clear peer threats (Russia and China) are we still building to the business case rather than the combat case?

      These questions are largely rhetorical but fascinating nonetheless. I'd love to be able to sit down one-on-one with, say, CNO Richardson and ask him how he can sleep at night knowing that he is failing to build a combat capable and ready Navy. His reply, if any, would be fascinating, I have no doubt.


    2. "I find it bizarre that no-one has proposed putting the effective IIR seeker from the AIM-9X onto the AIM-120 missile."

      The Stunner missile already does that, i suppose the Israelis will sooner or later integrate it onto their F-35s

  6. The infrared sensors used on the F-14 were LM as is the new IRST21 for the F-18. The long range IR sensors based on new generation silicon an order of magnitude improvement on the old.

    IRST21 tech is the basis of the LEGION pod for upgraded Air Force F-15s and Korean and Singapore F-15Ks and in the latest LM Sniper pod.

    The equivalent Rafael Litening and Thales TALIOS pods use same tech with the new IR sensors, stabilization, color imagery, a wide field of view, day or night operation from any altitude; scene-matching; and automatic detection and tracking of mobile targets.
    In air-to-air scenarios TALIOS provides day/night airborne target identification. IR imagery provides a continuous electronic zoom between 4.8 degrees to 0.12 degrees and TV imagery provides a continuous electronics zoom between 7.0 degrees and 0.06 degrees.

    Though the IRST is a priority for the Super Hornet Block II in June 29 Navy budget submission a reduction of $100 million was taken from the Aircraft Procurement, Navy (APN) for the F-18 IRST program to partially fund an additional LCS, LOL.

  7. Bulltwinkie. Even the groundpounders were aware of the IRT capability of the 'Cat. (RVN '69-'71)
    Someone is looking for a retirement gig by portraying it as "New and Improved". Even we remember the "Sgt. York". "There is nothing new under the sun...."

    1. "Bulltwinkie"

      ?? I haven't heard that one. I can gather the meaning from the context. I'll have to remember it!

  8. So, here's a rendering of a Advanced Super Hornet suggesting that a chin mounted IR/EO sensor mount its possible.

    Like i said above the SH is bigger than legacy Hornets so just mounting such a aperture beneath the nose is technically possible. Why they didn't do it for more than 20 years is not known.

    And having a chin mounted targeting sensor would greatly reduce the drag penalty of the asymmetrical fuel tank load out ( because on the side mounted Targeting Pod ) SH have to fly with


    2. I'm not sure what each of those sensor windows house but suggests a pretty good passive sensing capability.

  9. You make a good point about the Hornet. And I have been one of it's defenders. It's a good jet, if you include a bunch of starred caveats (*for one designed to budget, to a bad warfare theory, to bad assumptions...)

    The more I look at the Tomcat the more I think us doing to the Tomcat what the Russians did to the SU-27 would have led us to a much better aircraft than what we have now.

    With IRST, an AESA and a TCS to extend BVR a ridiculous amount, all of which could be cross slaved, a follow on tomcat design using modern hydraulics and engines that would have great range could *USE* it's long range missiles against targets. Even vaunted ones like an F-35.

    The Tomcat wasn't a perfect fighter. I get that. But it was a Fighter. And with modern avionics and engines it could still be quite deadly.

    1. They already tough of that

      The Attack Super Tomcat 21 (ASF-14) would be a new build, highly updated version of the legendary F-14. A true “Super Tomcat” in every sense of the word, the machine would boast a large increase in internal fuel (over it’s already massive capacity) via thicker wings and larger over intake “shoulders.” The jet would have an all new digital flight control system with larger surfaces, dropping its minimum speed by upwards of 20kts. It would utilize the more powerful GE-F110-129 afterburning turbofan for it’s powerplant, allowing sustained supercruise of mach 1.3+. Airframe enhacements would allow the jet to reach over 77 degrees of sustained AoA but thrust vectoring was also to be part of the new design, which would have made it the most maneuverable US fighter ever. There was also talk about the airframe being able to later receive the F-22s F-119 or F-120 derivative motors, resulting in a predicted supercruise of mach 2.0 or more!

    2. I can never read that without being sad.

      I know a lot of this is questionable, vendor speak. And with the motors who knows. We know what happened with the A's. But I think Grumman could have pulled it off, at least most of it.

      With its failure we lost Grumman and most of that institutional experience making rock solid carrier aircraft.

  10. Sometimes I worry that in a modern, peer conflict the Hornet/Ford combination is going to have us look like the 21'st century edition of the Swordfish/Victorious.

  11. I think you overlook that affordability was the key trait when Hornet requirements were drafted. A lot of capabilities were purposely forgone.

    The F-14 Tomcat was a great interceptor, a fairly mediocre fighter - and eventually made a serviceable bomber. However, it certainly was not inexpensive.

    1. "affordability was the key trait when Hornet requirements were drafted."

      It appears that it was and that's my point - that budget is not what you design a combat asset for. YOU DESIGN A COMBAT ASSET FOR COMBAT!

      If affordability is our main criteria we can have a thousand ship fleet of canoes. Of course, they won't be worth anything in combat but they'll be affordable.

      What's the point of an affordable Hornet if it would get beaten in combat?

      Anyone who would design an aircraft with affordability as the main criteria is an idiot who doesn't know what war is.

    2. I get that affordability was a criterion. As was, I believe, sortie rate and maintenance. None of these things, by itself is bad. You can't make an X-wing for 4 trillion dollars that does everything and is so complex it flies once a week (Hello Lightning II). The Super Hornet went too far on the other side of things; trying to put a budget fighter on our very expensive carriers that would fit a niche that existed only for a short period in the 90's and 2000's; I.E. bombing non peer assets. Given it's price it did the job well but not cheaply.

      I think had they gone Super Tomcat 21, or designed a new fighter with capability in mind, they would have been better off in the long run.

      Heck, if you want truck plinking ability have someone make a modern day A4.

  12. The latest versions of the F-4 Phantom also carried a Tactical Camera Set in their port side wing leading edge.
    In clear weather, a fighter sized target could be detected and identified at 27 nm / 50 km.
    The F-4 with TCS see:

    An experimental F-16 AFTI flew with a TCS in the starboard wing root,
    see section 2.6:



    Ah all the things it could have been.

  14. The A6E had infrared and laser (IIRC) capabilities with Target Recognition And Multisensor (TRAM) pods. They're under the nose in this iteration:


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.