Since it entered service with the US Navy and Marine Corps in Sept 1987 the Boeing F/A-18D Hornet has proved itself a highly capable multi-role fighter-bomber. However, to undertake a reconnaissance sortie the aircraft would have to carry a large external pod, limiting the additional weapons that could be carried, as well as having an impact on the aircrafts performance. In the early 1990’s the US Air Force needed a new tactical reconnaissance pod for their F-16s, to replace their retired RF-4s. The US Marine Corps was also being re-equipped with a large number of F/A-18Ds and they also needed to replace the airborne reconnaissance capability lost when their final RF-4 Phantoms were retired. The solution was a joint programme for a new tactical reconnaissance system known as the Advanced Tactical Reconnaissance Airborne System (ATARS).
Originally the US Air Force was the lead service for ATARS and they planned to equip a number of their F-16s with an external pod containing the complete ATARS system. However, in Jun 1993, after years of delay and cost overruns, the US Air Force withdrew from the ATARS programme and this was followed later that year by a critical review of the ATARS programme, which identified a number of significant errors in the procurement programme and recommended how these could be addressed. In Nov 1993 the US Navy received approval to resume development of ATARS and the US Marine Corps, as the lead service, then assumed management of the ATARS programme in Jan 1994. Rather than limit the attack capability of their F/A-18 aircraft, the US Marine solution was to have the majority of the new reconnaissance system mounted internally on a number of F/A-18Ds.
The ATARS fits neatly in the nose of the F/A-18D in place of the 20mm cannon. ATARS has three sensors, the LAEO (Low Altitude Electro Optical), the MAEO (Medium Altitude Electro Optical) and the IRLS (Infra Red Line Scan). The LAEO and IRLS are primarily used for altitudes of between 200ft – 3000ft, whilst the MAEO is used between 3000ft and 20,000ft. The LAEO has a 138° field of view and the MARO has a 22º wide scan able to slew from wing tip to wing tip. The IRLS has both a wide mode of 140° and a narrow mode of 70º. In an ATARS installation the front transparent window is where the LAEO and MAEO are situated and the rear window, with a special translucent orange coating, is used by the IRLS. Data captured by the sensors is recorded on two 19mm digital tape recorders. The tapes can record the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, the EO sensors or the IRLS data and are initialised to record a particular data stream prior to take-off. Up to 30 minutes of SAR data or 45 minutes of ATARS data can be recorded on the tapes but, because of reliability problems, the 19mm tapes will be replaced by new digital recorders in 2006. An onboard Reconnaissance Management System (RMS) controls the various sensors and a digital datalink pod, mounted on the centreline station, enables imagery captured by the various systems to be transmitted in near real-time to any Common Imaging Ground Station/Surface Station (CIG/SS) compatible system, including the Joint Services Imagery Processing System (JSIPS) or Marine Tactical Exploitation Group (TEG) based ashore and Navy JSIPS (JSIPS-N) aboard ship. However, due to its complexity, in operational use it appears that the data link is rarely used and instead reconnaissance imagery is usually processed after flight.
In Nov 1995 the McDonnell Douglas Corporation was awarded a $69 million contract for the development an integration of ATARS into the F/A-18D. In Dec 1996 approval was given for ATARS to begin Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) of four ATARS suites that would be used for a variety of tests. This was followed in March 1998 by a second LRIP contract for a further six ATARS and four Data Link pods and then in Sep 1999 further approval was given for another LRIP contract for the US Marine Corps. Each of the six US Marines F/A-18D squadrons will receive three ATARS aircraft, giving a total of 18 ATARS equipped aircraft altogether. The first operational use of ATARS equipped aircraft occurred in Feb 2000 when the MCAS Beaufort based VMFA(AW)-332 deployed to Hungary in Operation Allied Force. ATARS is now fully deployed to Marine Corps F/A-18D units and has already proved itself in action, where ATARS equipped aircraft have carried out Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) during a strike, a far safer option than having an unarmed aircraft arrive to complete a BDA run after an attack whilst transmitting the data in near real-time, making the aircraft a considerable advance in capability on the US Marines old RF-4B/C aircraft.