Five years ago, tactical air power was in danger of becoming irrelevant, unbeknownst to the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel who fly and maintain the Pentagon’s roughly 4,000 attack jets, fighters and bombers. While the Air Force — and the air components of the Navy and Marine Corps, too — were still mostly equipping to bomb fixed, pre-determined targets deep behind enemy lines with big formations of mutually supporting airplanes, the bad guys were up to something else entirely. They were ditching the heavy equipment, organizing into small cells and planning on disappearing into cities and mountains when the U.S. airplanes appeared overhead. Fighter pilots just didn’t have the right tools to find and swiftly hit tiny, fleeting targets in cluttered, chaotic environments.
Then there were targeting pods, which had their beginnings more than 20 years ago but since 2003 have appeared on almost every fighting aircraft in the U.S. inventory. The idea is simple: pack the latest sensors, laser designators and datalinks into a metal pod much like a drop tank, hang it under the wing of your Harrier, Hornet, Falcon, Eagle or even B-52 bomber or Prowler jammer jet – and voila! You’ve given every fighter a brand new set of eyes and all the separate gizmos it needs to aim precision-guided weapons and talk to guys on the ground to get the worm’s eye view of the target. No wonder the top-to-bottom overhaul of the Air Force’s workhorse A-10 Warthog fleet has essentially focused on making the ungainly attack jet a better pod platform.
Targeting pods have turned every airplane into a roving, independent reconnaissance platform that can instantly switch from watching to killing and back to watching. And at the same time that pods have made fighter sections more independent, they’ve made them better at networking too, thanks to the installed datalinks. That seeming contradiction actually makes perfect sense if you think about it. The old model of warfare had huge formations of airplanes flying out on rigid schedules in self-contained missions that were part of scripted air strategies. The new model spreads aircraft out in a thin blanket covering the entire battlefield around the clock. This concept throws out the script in favor of instantaneous reaction to many small pop-up threats. Each two-plane section is all alone covering their own little patch of the battlefield, but still part of a bigger, incredibly flexible network. Pods make this possible.
Targeting pods — which are relatively cheap and easily upgraded — are actually a strong argument in favor of a new business model for fielding air forces. Forget sinking $100 billion into developing a new airframe. After all, an airframe is only as good as its weapons and sensors, and those you can cram into a pod. Just stick to the most reliable, cheapest existing airframes — say, the F-15 and F-16 — and constantly upgrade the pods for a fraction of the cost of new airframe programs. That might not be the best answer for air-to-air missions that still demand dramatic applications of physics, but air-to-air missions are rare. So buy a few F-22s to shoot down enemy fighters, but forget the $300-billion Joint Strike Fighter program. You could buy new F-16s and fit them with cutting edge pods for a fraction of the cost.