MAG-13 pilots test new revolution in close air support

27 Nov 2007 | Sgt. Molly C. King

Pilots of Marine Aircraft Group 13, from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., have put the latest development in close air support to the test while flying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Targeting Pod-Video downlink system (T-Pod V), developed at the Harrier Program Office at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., broadcasts the video captured by the Litening Pod II targeting system, enabling those on the ground to view a real-time image of the pilot's target through a remote receiving station (RRS). Ultimately, this allows the Forward Air Controller and pilot to communicate visually as well as verbally - a huge innovation in close air support technology, according to Lt. Col. Steve Waugh, operations officer for MAG-13's forward operating base here.

"This is the biggest leap in technology for close air support since the radio," said Waugh. "This will revolutionize the way close air support is done."

Integrating close air support with ground troops has always been a challenge, Waugh said. Friendly fire, unintended civilian deaths and collateral damage are serious concerns that weigh on pilots' minds each time they lock on a target.

"There have been few innovations in the past 60 years," he said. "A pilot receives a brief verbal description of a target and it's coordinates from the FAC. When he moves in to fire on the target he has only seconds to assimilate the information based on only a verbal description and determine if he is focused on the right target, lock onto it and fire."

The limited amount of communication leaves room for uncertainty and error, and can result in unfortunate "blue on blue" friendly-fire incidents. According to Waugh, the T-Pod V eliminates this communications gap and virtually eradicates the possibility of error.

"With the T-Pod V the FAC is looking at a monitor showing exactly what the pilot is targeting, and can confirm that the pilot is aiming at the correct target," Waugh said. "The level of difficulty in target acquisition and identification is significantly reduced."

The T-Pod V has more than lived up to the expectations, according to Maj. Chris, MAG-13 AV-8B II Harrier pilot.

Three systems were delivered to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1, MCAS Yuma., in time to be used for the squadron's fall 2002 Weapons and Tactics Instructor's course, a two-month school for Marine pilots held bi-annually at MCAS Yuma.

The system's performance was awesome right from the start, said Chris.

"It worked the first time it was used," he said. "It did exactly what it was expected to do."

The performance of the T-Pod V has continued to hold up during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Chris said.

"It has had a 100 percent success rate - it has not failed," he said. "The FACs love it and they're asking for it."

According to Maj. Joseph Gigliotti, Task Force Tarawa forward air controller, the T-Pod V helps him target very quickly in a rapidly-changing battle space. Additionally, the technology is easy to learn and apply, he said.

"It's fantastic," Gigliotti said. "It greatly increases our capabilities for close air support, particularly with time-sensitive targets."

Pilots and FACs alike are hoping the concept will grow and branch out into other areas of Marine Corps aviation, said Chris.

"We give the (developers) updates every time we use it," said Chris. "The system has been proven and now we're just trying to spread the word that the system is available."

The impact on assuaging fratricide and collateral damage is huge, and the system will mark a new era of close air support tactics, according to Waugh. He hopes to see the technology spread throughout Marine aviation.

"In a perfect world every aircraft would have the T-Pod V and every FAC would have a RRS monitor," said Waugh. "It's not that much equipment and the pay off is gigantic."