LITENING Targeting Pod Tested On F/A-18 Super Hornet For First Time

The LITENING advanced targeting pod will be a major upgrade over the Super Hornet’s current Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared pod.

byEmma Helfrich|
Northrop Grumman


Northrop Grumman announced that its LITENING advanced targeting pod, or ATP, has begun test flights with a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. The test marks the first time that the LITENING ATP has flown on a Navy Super Hornet as the service had only just chosen it as the replacement for the jet’s legacy Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod earlier this year. 

The LITENING ATP is an electro-optical and infrared sensor and laser targeting system. The pod flew on a two-seat Navy F/A-18F and pilots involved in the test conducted maneuvers and operations intended to be reminiscent of real combat scenarios that the LITENING may eventually fly in. These reportedly included ground-moving target tracking, air-to-air tracking, and target designation. The LITENING’s eye-safe laser mode was also engaged to allow for realistic training with forward air controllers on the ground.

“This first flight demonstrated LITENING’s ability to rapidly add modern, upgradeable mission capabilities to the Super Hornet,” said James Conroy, vice president of navigation, targeting, and survivability at Northrop Grumman. “The pod’s digital video, autonomous target tracking, and laser sensors will give Naval aviators an entirely new set of capabilities for operations over land and sea today, and the growth capabilities built into LITENING’s modular design ensure that the pod can evolve to meet changing requirements.”

The LITENING ATP is mounted onto an aircraft externally and provides pilots and aircrew with the ability to detect, identify, and track targets from long-distance ranges through its high-resolution forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and full-color TV sensor. On top of that, a laser designator paired with a laser rangefinder allows for precise delivery of laser-guided munitions and measurement of target coordinates respectively. 

Northrop Grumman's LITENING targeting pod system. Credit: Northrop Grumman

LITENING ATP also has multiple fields of view for enhanced situational awareness, ease of target finding, and better surveillance capabilities. It also packs its own inertial navigation sensor and can self-boresight (looks directly forward) automatically. In the air-to-air realm, the pod can be slaved to the jet's radar or other sensors so that very long-range visual identification of targets can be made, day or night. You can read more about this critical capability here.

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The LITENING ATP is slated to take over for the Super Hornet’s Raytheon-developed AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pods that have been around for over two decades after the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a contract for the replacement in early 2022. The Navy has been actively looking for either an ATFLIR upgrade or a complete replacement since at least 2019, and it would appear that LITENING is on its way to fulfilling that requirement. 

Both pods offer similar functionality for the Super Hornet, but LITENING is markedly more capable in many respects in comparison to the legacy ATFLIR. The War Zone also reached out to Northrop Grumman for additional information about how LITENING will improve over its successor, and the company responded as such:

"LITENING features daylight and infrared (IR) sensors with digital, high-definition video and advanced picture-in-picture capability that can display multiple simultaneous views,” Conroy wrote over email. “Plug-and-play data links enable secure, two-way communications and the pod’s modular design is ready for evolving mission requirements (including the already fielded color CCD and next-generation capabilities currently in development). It also offers an eye-safe laser mode for realistic training. The pod’s laser imaging sensors offer more accurate identification to overcome challenges to traditional IR imaging. After the mission, a full data recording of all sensor inputs is available for analysis. These capabilities will give Naval aviators enhanced and new capabilities for their missions."

An example of the high-definition color and IR video produced by the LITENING pod. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Even though LITENING was mounted in a centerline configuration different from the ATFLIR for the flight test, Conroy went on to tell The War Zone that may change. Northrop Grumman intends to have LITENING certified to be fixed to either Station 6 located on the Super Hornet’s centerline or Station 5, which would fit the ATP to the jet’s left cheek adjacent to the intake where the ATFLIR is currently located when loaded. This is important as the Super Hornet's centerline station is prized real estate, especially now that conformal fuel tanks are no longer in the works for Navy Super Hornets and seeing as the type's infrared search and track (IRST)-fuel tank combo has to be positioned there when fitted.

The Navy's choice of LITENING for its Super Hornets isn’t necessarily surprising given the pod's long history in U.S. service, upgradability, and capabilities, as well as its track record internationally on a host of platforms. Northrop Grumman claims that more than 900 LITENING pods have been delivered to its customers since its fielding. 

Ground crew load an ATFLIR onto a Super Hornet. (USN)

In its first iteration, the LITENING I was developed by Rafael Corporation specifically for the Israeli Air Force. Northrop Grumman then teamed up with Rafael to further develop the pod in 1995, which led to the fielding of LITENING II with the U.S. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command F-16s in 1999 and later with U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers in 2000. After a couple of years of additional image processing enhancements, Northrop Grumman released the AT configuration in 2003. It was fielded with Marine Corps F/A-18 Legacy Hornets in 2006

Since then, the Air Force has started pushing LITENING’s operational utility by unconventionally testing the pod aboard cargo aircraft. In 2021, the service kicked off operational testing with a LITENING-equipped C-130 Hercules to prove that the targeting pod could be beneficial in supporting the Hercules’ precision airdrop initiative. The test underscored a wider push across global services to utilize LITENING, or targeting pods like it, for more precise delivery of air-dropped cargo loads, namely from high altitudes. The pod's secondary surveillance capabilities are also a big plus.

A LITENING targeting pod hangs from a C-130H at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, last April 8. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Blake Gonzales

All in all, LITENING’s introduction to the Navy’s Super Hornet is yet another in a string of significant upgrades planned for the service’s fleet. The Navy received its first pair of Block III Super Hornets last year, upgraded with wide-area multifunction displays, more processing power and networking capability, and features to help reduce the jet’s radar signature, among other additions. These modernizations will become increasingly more important while the Navy carries out its Next Generation Air Dominance program as the service expects the Super Hornet will be a key component of its overall tactical aviation fleets, carrier wings included, for many years to come. 

On the other side of the globe, however, Kuwait’s fleet of Super Hornets has been testing a targeting pod since 2021 that is in direct competition with LITENING — one that is already even in widespread use with the U.S. Air Force as well. Lockheed Martin’s Sniper ATP also provides precision targeting and surveillance capabilities, and the success of last year’s tests in Kuwait has allowed the company to actually set a fielding date with the country’s Super Hornets in late 2023. The very widely-used Sniper pod was another option for the Super Hornet as has been used with some Legacy Hornets, such as those from Canada.

Northrop Grumman pointedly notes, though, that the Navy has already decided that LITENING will be the system to replace the Super Hornet’s ATFLIR, but when exactly LITENING will reach initial operational capability on the jets is what remains to be seen.

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