U.S. Navy leaders are calling for rapid development of new warfighting technologies that are immune to electronic attack and can deter advanced adversaries. An early success: the Navy’s work with Lockheed Martin to deliver aircraft sensors that are affordable and will prepare its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for 21st Century Security.
Lockheed Martin’s IRST21 is a long-wave infrared search-and-track sensor that passively detects airborne targets well beyond visual range. For Naval Aviators, it makes the entire F/A-18 platform more capable and lethal -- and missions more survivable, says Bob Rubino, a former Navy pilot now a Lockheed Martin strategist for aviation sensors.
It is the type of advanced warfighting capability on the agenda for senior military and civilian leaders at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition. With its open-architecture design, IRST21’s threat data can be fused with information from other sensors and shared across the battlespace, supporting Joint All-Domain Operations (JADO).
While U.S. policymakers debate investment in future aircraft, IRST21 will help keep the Navy’s existing fleet of F/A-18s relevant in the fifth-generation fight.
The latest version of the IRST21 system for the USN features upgraded optics and industry-best algorithms, significantly increasing threat-detection range. IRST21 Block II now is in production and performing in flight tests.
The IRST21 sensor system has proven itself through more than 300,000 flight hours on various platforms, with 505 systems delivered to the Navy, U.S. Air Force, and other services as of April 1, 2022.
For the Navy Super Hornet, IRST21 is integrated in the front of the centerline fuel tank. For the Air Force, the IRST21 sensor operates in Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod.
Air Force leaders describe Legion Pod’s infrared search-and-track capabilities as “a game changer” and “the next step for countering jamming technology and allowing our warfighters to fight and track the enemy in contested environments.”
Enabling 21st Century Security
In ongoing flight tests, the combination of IRST21 and datalinks have increasingly shown that an infrared, out-of-band sensor could be a critical component in JADO, a top priority for U.S. services.
- Teaming with autonomous aircraft: In November 2021, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems used two Avenger unmanned aircraft equipped with IRST21 in Legion Pods to detect and track multiple fast-moving aircraft at long range while streaming the threat data to a ground command center. IRST21 also fed data to the Avengers’ autonomy engines, allowing them to autonomously maneuver for target engagement.
- Communication across platforms: At Northern Edge exercises in 2021, the Air Force and Air National Guard demonstrated data-sharing between two F-15Cs equipped with Legion Pods with IRST21. The datalink capability provided precise and near-instantaneous range to a target.
- Improved lethality: In August 2021, the Air Force used IRST21 in its first-ever live fire of an AIM-120 air-to-air missile from an F-15C Eagle, successfully shooting down a QF-16 aerial target.
IRST21 for multiple services
IRST21 works in different configurations built for the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and allies around the world.
- For the U.S. Navy Super Hornet, IRST21 is integrated in the front of the centerline fuel tank. The Navy and Lockheed Martin anticipate reaching Initial Operating Capability for the Block II system in early 2024.
- For the U.S. Air Force, IRST21 is the key sensor in Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod. The system now flies operationally on F-15C Eagles.
- For U.S. allies, Lockheed Martin is developing the Legion-ES system with IRST21 for new-production F-16 fighters and has integrated and delivered systems on the F-15.