Tactical recon paying dividends with TARS

  • Published
  • By Maj. John S. Hutcheson
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

A little-known capability here is paying big dividends for warfighters on the ground. Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron are using the Theater Airborne Reconnaissance System, or TARS pod, to provide high-quality still imagery to ground commanders to help them achieve their tactical objectives.

The TARS pod, mounted on the centerline of the F-16, contains a sophisticated photographic system that records high-resolution images which can be exploited by users on the ground within hours of landing. Because the pod is mounted on the centerline, the aircraft can still carry a variety of munitions under the wings to perform close air support for ground forces and air-to-air missions if necessary.

The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve are using TARS in a variety of ways in Iraq.  One of these is to help ground forces with their mission planning, providing them up-to-date imagery of roads, houses, structures, neighborhoods and other areas of interest.

"Many of the images being used by the ground guys for mission planning are Falcon View satellite images that are often dated," said Lt. Col. Kerry Gentry, commander of the 332nd and member of the New Jersey Air National Guard. "A lot can change over time in terms of new construction of buildings and roads. We can provide our JTACs and other ground forces up-to-date, high-resolution images they need to execute their missions."

Just how good is the resolution? The TARS pod is the equivalent of a 36-megapixel camera, said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Fisher, 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and a guardsman from the 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, Ind.

To put that in perspective, most handheld digital cameras range between two and five megapixels. The resolution of the TARS images, however, is only one of its advantages.

"The camera in the TARS pod has the ability to rotate in order to shoot at angles you can't get any other way from the air -- doorways, windows, sides of buildings," said Tech. Sgt. Stephen Holt, noncommissioned officer in charge of imagery operations with the 332nd EFS. "This type of imagery of entry and exit points can be invaluable to a ground commander planning a raid on a house or other building."

In fact, TARS images from Balad F-16s recently played a key role in the planning of a raid on a house in the local area that netted several insurgents and a weapons cache, Colonel Gentry said.

In addition to helping with mission planning, TARS images are being used extensively in "comparative detection" or "change detection" missions. In this role, F-16s photograph areas of interest repeatedly over time, looking for changes that would indicate insurgent activity, a function that has become increasingly important as insurgents have made improvised explosive devices their weapon of choice against coalition forces.

In one instance in August 2005, a TARS-equipped F-16 photographed a series of dirt mounds along the side of a road south of Baghdad. Using that information, ground commanders sent an EOD team to investigate. The EOD team detonated the first mound which set off a daisy chain of 13 IEDs along the road.

TARS-equipped F-16s are also used to provide battle damage assessment of targets struck from the air. A TARS-equipped jet has the ability to photograph a target before a strike, drop a GPS-guided munition, and then perform its own high-resolution BDA.

Colonel Gentry believes as more ground commanders discover what TARS can provide, the demand for this high quality reconnaissance imagery will increase.

"As warfighters become more educated about this capability, they want more," he said.

Future upgrades to the TARS pods will allow real time data downlink to users on the ground and will enable the system to operate effectively in all weather conditions.