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Sniper ATP-equipped B-1B has combat first

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- A Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod-equipped B-1B Lancer had its first weapon employment in combat here Aug. 4 successfully targeting enemy forces on the ground and dropping one guided bomb unit-38 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. 

The Sniper ATP, a long-range precision targeting system, provides enhanced target identification for aircrew, allowing them to detect and analyze targets on the ground via real-time imagery. The pod's advanced image processing algorithm, combined with its stabilization techniques, out performs the best systems in service today, according to Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the pod.

B-1Bs were recently modified in order to carry the pod, which has been integrated on various fighter aircraft, including the F-15E, F-16 Block 30/40/50 and the A-10, since 2001. 

In July 2006, U.S. Air Forces Central filed an urgent need request for a B-1B with advanced targeting pod capability, according to Maj. Marc London, Headquarters U.S. Air Force Combat Forces Requirements, chief of bomber requirements. Following a request by the Air Force's Combat Forces Requirements Division, Congress allocated $24.7 million towards the project, paving the way for the 15-month acquisition, aircraft modification and testing phase.

Regulations implemented by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and the USSR played a role in why the B-1B community is just now implementing the Sniper ATP.

"As a part of the START, B-1Bs were classified as no longer nuclear capable and we were not authorized to use the exterior of the aircraft to mount pods," said Lt. Col. Kevin Kennedy, 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander. "We had to get approval to mount the pods on the exterior of the aircraft."

The B-1B was originally designed for low-altitude, high-speed flight against deliberate targets, Colonel Kennedy said.

"In today's fight, we are most often employed in a close-air-support role from medium altitude," he said. "In that capacity, a Sniper-equipped B-1B is an exponential increase in combat capability."

Before the Sniper ATP, B-1B aircrews used only high-resolution radar to "see" their targets.

"The big difference with radar is only large objects, like buildings, are visible," said an aircraft commander from the 34th EBS. "We could see buildings and vehicles but not people. Also, radar is a picture in time whereas the pod provides us with real-time, streaming video, which enhances our capability."

The Sniper ATP also eases communication with ground personnel, allowing aircrew to put bombs on target quickly and precisely.

"Now the guys on the ground can see the video provided by the pod at the same time as us and that's something we've never been able to do before," another aircrew member said. "The pod also gives us immediate bomb damage assessment whereas before, any assessment had to come from someone on the ground."

The 34th EBS, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., only recently arrived at the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. Prior to their deployment, pilots, weapons systems officers and maintenance personnel received required training on the Sniper ATP, which was installed on the B-1B in April.

"The training requirement was significant because it took place during our regular spin-up time prior to the deployment," Colonel Kennedy said. "For aircrew, the training involved approximately 10 to 12 hours of academics, three flights for WSOs and two flights for pilots. When you're talking 50 crewmembers flying the same three aircraft, this is a challenge."

The 440-pound pod also posed a challenge to maintenance personnel. Attached to the outside of the B-1B via an 884-pound pylon, the pod requires specialized training for those responsible for keeping the bomber in the air.

B-1B aircraft require a hard-point modification in order to carry the pylon, the Sniper ATP, and extensive electrical and aviation modifications were made in order to allow the Sniper to operate with existing avionics, said Capt. Chris Glidden, 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge.

"Training plays a critical role in fielding a new subsystem like the Sniper pod," Captain Glidden said. "Avionics and weapons systems technicians attend a school in Florida to learn how to maintain, repair and up and download the pod and its supporting pylon."

The Sniper ATP's design allows for true two-level maintenance which eliminates costs and man hours related to intermediate-level support. Prior to their deployment, maintenance personnel with the 34th AMU ensured more than 40 pieces of support equipment were in theater in order to support the pod's arrival, Captain Glidden said.

"Support equipment includes consolidated tool kits, specialized adapters for bomb loaders and support dollies," he said. "Additionally, several supply kit items required modification in order to support this new critical capability."

Much of the essential maintenance equipment required software upgrades and every maintenance and logistical organization from the flightline to the back shops played a critical part in the Sniper pod's arrival, Captain Glidden said.

"The Sniper pod itself may have made it into theater after a two-day flight from home station but hundreds of maintenance and logistics personnel spent many months behind the scenes to make it happen," he said.

It takes approximately 45 days for a B-1B to be modified to carry the Sniper ATP. Once the pylon is attached to the aircraft, the pod is loaded with a MAU-12 bomb rack, according to Michael Schnell, B-1B Avionics, Air Force Engineering and Technical Services.

"The aircraft went to Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base, Ariz.,] for modification and then to Ellsworth [AFB] where the aircrew and maintenance personnel got to train with them," Mr. Schnell said. "It's all very new to us but with the few flights we've had, it's performed very well."

The Sniper ATP has a 97 percent mission capable rate and, according to Mr. Schnell, the majority of required maintenance can be performed with the pod still on the aircraft.

All B-1Bs assigned to the 379th AEW will soon be equipped with the Sniper ATP and commanders here are already impressed with the increased capability it has provided in the area of operations.

"Sniper ATP brings an amazing new capability to the already amazing B-1B," said Col. Marilyn Kott, 379th Expeditionary Operations Group commander. "It increases the speed and accuracy with which the aircrew and the [joint tactical air controllers] can execute the find-fix-track-target portion of the kill chain.

"Our enemies now have even less opportunity to avoid us, less opportunity to get away and less opportunity to continue their efforts against the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan," she said. "We're honored to help bring Sniper to another aircraft in the AOR and to help realize the culmination of years of work by many people. We're glad to have the opportunity to employ it now in this very critical fight that our coalition is waging."

Editor's note: The names of B-1B aircrew members interviewed for this article are being withheld for operational security reasons.

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