Taken during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the following amazing photograph of a GBU-12 heading for its target was taken by a TARPS-equipped VF-32 F-14B Tomcat.
The aircraft’s RIO was Lt Cdr David Dorn, who recalled in Tony Holmes’ book US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom;
‘We were flying the TARPS jet when we were fragged to hit an SA-2 site with an LGB. Skipper Hitchcock was flying the jet which lased the target for our weapon. We got some great TARPS footage of the LGB coming off of our jet and leading down to impact the missile site. I got to replicate this mission several days later, when we again hit a target with an LGB while flying the TARPS jet. The jet could only carry LGBs when equipped with the TARPS as the JDAM was just too big. And when carrying the TARPS pod we could not employ the LTS, so we had to rely on our wingman to buddy lase for us.’
VF-32 flew very few TARPS missions in OIF, as squadron CO Cdr Marcus Hitchcock explained;
‘Although we were not tasked with flying TARPS missions in the early stages of the campaign, I made sure that our dedicated reconnaissance crews flew a couple of sorties in order to remain current with the system, and to allow VF-32 to offer this service to CVW-3 should it be required. We were eventually tasked to fly several missions later the war. My squadron operated the conventional and CD TARPS, and they effectively complemented each other. Because we were so pressed with servicing ground targets, we decided to load the TARPS jets with bombs too so that they could fly a dual mission.’
For many years, the F-14’s most important contribution to Operation Southern Watch (OSW) was as a photographic-reconnaissance platform thanks to its bolt-on TARPS (Tactical Aerial Reconnaissance Pod System) pod. Secured to rear right Phoenix missile station five, the pod originally boasted two wet film (subsequently replaced by Digital Imaging) cameras and a single infra-red line scanner for low-light/night reconnaissance (removed pre-OIF). Although weighing in at 1760 lbs, the pod imposed few performance penalties on the F-14 other than restricting the carriage of missiles/bombs on the aft tunnel stations. TARPS jets were also LANTIRN Targeting System (LTS) prohibited because both systems shared common wiring and control panel locations in the Tomcat.
TARPS remained in use with the fleet until late 2004, and in its final years of service there were three main types of pod in use. They were the legacy ‘wet’ film pod, TARPS DI (digital imaging) pod, which used digital cameras that allowed the shots to be viewed in the cockpit and sent back to the carrier or other Link-16 capable aircraft over encrypted UHF, and TARPS CD (completely digital), fitted with digital cameras that auto-sent the imagery when within range of a receiving station.
OIF veteran It Cdr Mike Peterson explained how VF-2 selected the F-14 to be used in this role in 2002-03;
‘Not every aircraft in the squadron was TARPS capable, as the jet needed to have had its environmental control system (ECS) modified to allow it to pressurise the pod in flight. Our maintenance personnel were having to work flat out to keep at least six of our ten F-14s airworthy at any one time on cruise, leaving them with little time to perform the ECS mod on all of our jets. We tried not to switch the pods around too much, adhering to the principle “if it ain’t broke don’t mess with it”. We usually had a dedicated TARPS jet and two others identified as “good” TARPS aircraft. If we had to load a pod from scratch, and could secure a deck elevator run to get it from the TARPS shop up to the flightdeck (often the limiting factor), it would take us 1-2 hours -depending on jet location and availability – to fit it to the aircraft.’
US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy