The AREOS Reco NG pod, an integral part of the F3 standard for Rafale fighters, brings France into the world of all-digital reconnaissance.
As a veritable “omnirole” fighter, the Rafale has already replaced several types of warplanes in the French air force and navy. This trend is set to continue in the coming years with the retirement of France’s last Mirage F-1 fighters, the carrier-borne modernized Super Etendard and the oldest members of the Mirage 2000 fleet. The Rafale F3 will therefore take over the reconnaissance role, for which it deploys a dedicated system, the AREOS Reco NG pod developed by Thales.
The French air force has already ordered a dozen pods, and the French navy another eight. Several series of deck landing and catapult launch tests have validated the pod’s use on aircraft carriers.
Tactical and strategic
The AREOS Reco NG pod is 4.6 meters long (15 ft.) and weighs 1,100 kg (2,420 lb), making it compatible with the Rafale, as well as the Mirage 2000 if needed. Up front on the pod, the HA/MA (high altitude/medium altitude) optical sensor supports photography at medium range, or even long-range at standoff distance. The AREOS Reco NG offers an identification range of several tens of kilometers – two to three times the range of the Presto pod currently deployed on Mirage F1CR aircraft in Afghanistan.
Located aft in the AREOS pod, the low-altitude sensor supports horizon to horizon photography at an altitude of only 60 meters (200 ft) and very high speeds. The pod operates automatically, whether working in intermittent, zone coverage or terrain-following mode, and always knows its exact position in space, so that it can control the pointing of its optical sensors in both pitch and roll.
Its control capability is based on data transmitted by its own inertial reference system, correlated with data from the nav-attack system on the aircraft itself. As soon as the shots are taken, they are automatically overlaid on a digital elevation model, geo-referenced and assembled to provide a complete mosaic of the target.
The images are then stored on a hard disk in the pod. They can be transmitted to a ground image receiving and processing station in real time, via a high-speed microwave link.
The recce pod can also operate in video mode by using successive images, and by measuring the displacement of a moving object from one image to another, it can estimate its speed.
Battlefield trials based on a hundred test flights enabled the CEAM military aircraft test center to validate the operation of the sensors and their tactical use in conjunction with the Rafale (1).
Test flights covered the full range of scenarios, from conventional to unusual, including tests of opportunity targets involving aircraft being reassigned in the middle of their sortie, through the L16 datalink.
“The pod is very easy to operate,” emphasizes Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Philippe Scherer, the officer in charge of the AREOS Reco NG program at CEAM. “The crew sees a pointer on their digital map with a mission request. All they have to do is indicate that they accept the mission and slave the pod to the pointer. It’s fast, easy, and there’s no risk of a misunderstanding, since no radio communications are involved.”
The teams at CEAM who subjected the Rafale-AREOS Reco NG duo to the toughest tests they could think of are very pleased.
“The daytime images are excellent,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Scherer. “Our objectives for night imaging, especially long-range infrared shots, were just as ambitious. The initial results are encouraging, but we’re now waiting for new adjustments to further boost performance.”
With this dual capacity, tactical and long-range, day and night, the Rafale F3/AREOS Reco NG duo is unrivaled worldwide. The first crews from operational units were trained at CEAM this summer. Several weeks later, the system reached its initial operating limit for appropriate missions, for example in foreign theaters of operation. Reflecting this capability, the pod is now deployed on the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier. By the end of the year, it will open its operating envelope to include terrain following during penetration flights, which is nearly as complex as a nuclear mission.
When this capability is added, the pod will officially be in service. “We’re eagerly awaiting the advent of this pod, since it’s a vital part of the Rafale F3,” concludes Lieutenant-Colonel Scherer.