The high cost and increasing complexity of new fighter aircraft has squeezed defence budgets around the world. One casualty of these cutbacks has been the dedicated manned reconnaissance aircraft, where both cost and the increasing use of UAVs have seen a marked reduction in the number of dedicated reconnaissance aircraft in service. However, the requirement for timely and accurate reconnaissance has never been greater and the simple solution was to equip fighter and strike aircraft with a reconnaissance pod.
In the late 1990s the US Navy addressed their shortage of reconnaissance aircraft by ordering 16 state-of-the-art reconnaissance pods from Raytheon. Designed and developed to a US Navy specification, the Raytheon Company’s SHAred Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) has been designed to provide tactical air reconnaissance for US Navy carrier-based wings.
The SHARP mounts a Recon-Optical CA-749H and a CA-749M digital dual spectrum band cameras together with a real-time data link to a ground station. The CA-749H camera is optimised for high altitude coverage and the CA-749M camera for medium altitude, giving coverage from 2,000 to 50,000ft and slant ranges out to 50nms. These two cameras collect visible and infrared imagery respectively and together with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) gives the pod an all-weather, day-night capability. The SHARP is large at over 15ft long, weighing about 2,100 lbs and can be carried on the centreline station of a Super Hornet, or in the bomb-bay of an Orion P-3. Full rate production of the SHARP began in 2004 and ultimately the US Navy would like to order 50 pods and 8 ground stations, allowing the SHARP to replace the 47 TARPS pods that are being withdrawn from service as the final F-14D Tomcats are retired.