NRL Reconnaissance System Developments Contribute to Operation Iraqi Freedom

9/22/2003 - 61-03w
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Digital systems developed by NRL's Optical Sciences Division were utilized in and made major contributions to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). One system, the Division's Full-Capability (F-CAP) version of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System - Completely Digital (TARPS-CD) system, was with the USS Harry S Truman and Air Wing CVW-3 with F-14 squadron VF-32 when they deployed in December 2002. F-CAP is a risk-reduction effort by NRL to help transform the U.S. Navy from film to new digital reconnaissance technologies.

Operation Iraqi Freedom afforded an opportunity to use F-CAP capabilities and the F-14 aircraft's Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) radio to supply real-time high-resolution images to ground forces in Northern Iraq. This appears to be the first time such forces could obtain "virtually real time imagery upon demand," according to unclassified reports. A second system, a dual-band EO/IR reconnaissance system prototyped by NRL, the Shared Airborne Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) for the F-18 Super Hornet, was employed in OIF on its first deployment aboard the USS Nimitz with squadron VFA-41. Third, the carrier-based image-screening and exploitation stations used on the F-CAP and SHARP deployments were crucial to F-CAP and SHARP operations in OIF; these stations are built with the NAVIS (Navy Input Station) technology developed by NRL.

The original version of TARPS-CD was the Navy's first digital system for manned tactical reconnaissance. The earlier carrier based F-14 exercises with the NRL TARPS-CD pod had demonstrated the system's capability as an organic asset for the carrier group commander to perform reconnaissance and battle damage assessment, to rapidly capture imagery on wide-area search missions and to supply imagery to the carrier in real time using the high-bandwidth Common Data Link (CDL). However, the limited range and availability of CDL, coupled with the crucial need for rapid image exploitation, established the need to transmit urgently needed images to the user even at reduced bandwidths. This could be accomplished if the F-14 aircrew were able to select the crucial images and transmit them over the FTI system. Given this need, the Optical Sciences Division developed a subsystem called ARIES (Airborne Real-time Image Exploitation System) as a part of the F-CAP upgrade.

ARIES allows the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) aboard the F-14 to use an analog video display to view the stream of still images collected by the reconnaissance sensor (a very sophisticated, very high resolution digital camera). An NRL-built interface allows the RIO to roam, zoom and pan on selected images to highlight target areas. ARIES overlays key information, such as latitude and longitude, on the video image. FTI digitally captures the image on the display and uses a voice radio channel for digital transmission. Ground forces receive both imagery and voice transmitted from the F-14 using portable FTI imagery receivers. For the first time, front-line troops were able to receive targeting-level imagery without the three-to-nine day delay associated with existing image dissemination channels or the set-up times associated with special "stove-piped" dissemination channels from operations centers using imagery obtained from satellites and UAVs.

The ARIES operation is simulated in Fig. 1. Fig. 1a shows 3 rows of images captured on a flight over Kuwait as they would appear on the F-14 display. Each row is a selectable set of 3 contiguous cross-track images taken by the camera, displayed to generate a continuous "waterfall" of 9 "thumbnail" images on the display. Fig. 1b illustrates the display after an image is chosen for exploitation. The white dot in the 3 x 3 image pattern in the upper right corner indicates which frame was chosen out of the nine available. In Fig. 1c the RIO has panned and zoomed the image to locate the target area. Annotation information is overlaid on the image, including the latitude and longitude at the crosshair. The image, including overlay, is then digitized and transmitted via the FTI radio link.

The US Navy has used carrier based high-speed fighter aircraft with multi-mission capability to conduct airborne reconnaissance for decades, using film cameras. These reconnaissance aircraft can speed to and from target areas, obtaining up-to-date imagery of large areas under a variety of conditions, as preparations for strike missions. However, the technology of reconnaissance, especially manned reconnaissance, has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. The use of digital electro-optical cameras has enabled the switch from wet film cameras, such as used in the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) pod, to all-digital data, while improving the capability to image at wavelengths other than the visible, such as in the infrared, enabling day/night operation. Digital data enable other new and powerful capabilities. Since digital images are generated on the airborne platform, they can be compressed and transmitted to the ground or other aircraft, enabling real-time operations. This new technology is transforming Naval manned reconnaissance and is moving the Navy closer to real-time "sensor to shooter" targeting to address time critical targets.

After the initial success of the TARPS-CD system, a formal program was instituted by the Navy to develop a new reconnaissance pod for the F/A-18E/F aircraft, with the capability to be shared with other platforms. That program, the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP), entered into its prototype stage in 1999. The Navy continued to fly and deploy TARPS-CD pods on F-14 aircraft as a risk-reduction effort in support of the SHARP program. The SHARP prototype stage was directed by NRL and ended in a successful demonstration of real-time operation of the prototype SHARP system in the summer of 2001. A successful prototype demonstration was a pre-requisite for go-ahead on Low-rate Initial Production for SHARP. SHARP is presently deployed to the Persian Gulf on an Early Operational Assessment. Fig. 2 shows the SHARP pod during at-sea trails just prior to deployment. The in-cockpit ARIES and FTI capabilities being evaluated on F-CAP will be introduced into SHARP as part of the pre-planned product improvement cycle for SHARP.

Concurrent with SHARP development, the NRL-developed TARPS-CD system has been deployed three times in the fleet, along with the Navy Input Station (NAVIS) ground station that is used on aircraft carriers to receive, display, manipulate, and exploit TARPS-CD images. The TARPS-CD NAVIS station capabilities were adapted and upgraded for SHARP and F-CAP. The NAVIS ground station has since been transitioned into full-rate production as the Navy's Tactical Input Segment (TIS), version 1.5 In summary, the TARPS-CD system has validated the use of fully digital technology as a superior replacement for wet-film based systems and provided risk reduction for emerging Naval reconnaissance systems for F-18.

The TARPS-CD F-CAP and SHARP prototype developments were led by the Photonics Technology Applied Optics and Advanced Concept Branches of NRL's Optical Sciences Division, and managed by NAVAIR PMA-241 and PMA-265, respectively. Other team members were: Smart Logic, Inc., V-Systems, Inc., SFA, Inc., DCS Corp, Space Dynamics Laboratory, Geologics Corp., and Raytheon Technical Services Company.

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