NAVAL AIR WEAPONS STATION CHINA LAKE, Calif. -- "This deployment was an excellent opportunity to showcase the great strides that have been made to create yet another premier system for the United States Marine Corps' Hornet Fleet.
"The current system proved its capabilities in a true tactical environment, consistently, during its duration in theater."
These are words from Aaron Hankins of Boeing, a returning member of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Advanced Weapons Laboratory Team, on success in Kosovo.
The call came May 3. The Marines wanted the F/A-18D at China Lake equipped with the Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS) sent to Hungary. They wanted ATARS and the NAWCWD team there quickly.
The Marine Corps had decided to put the day/night, all-weather reconnaissance system to use as part of its contribution to the air war against Yugoslavia. ATARS, in development at the F/A-18 Advanced Weapons Laboratory (AWL) at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, had just completed its developmental testing in mid-March, successfully progressing towards operational evaluation and eventual fleet release later this year. Earlier tests had demonstrated ATARS capability to provide imagery of a target at more than 170 miles distance in less than 55 minutes from receiving the tasking. The ATARS reconnaissance system in conjunction with a radar upgrade gives the F/A-18Ds an all-weather reconnaissance capability that other tactical reconnaissance systems don't have.
Within 72 hours of the May 3 phone call, 10,000 pounds of equipment, four Marine Corps aviators from China Lake (two pilots from the AWL, one weapons systems operator from the AWL and one from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine), an F/A-18D, and an AWL team of government and contractor engineers were on their way to support ATARS integration into the fleet. In that 72 hours, there were daily, even hourly, conference calls resolving issues to make it all happen.
The first stop was Beaufort, S.C., where the test team joined up with VMFA(AW)-332, to put ATARS through its paces and familiarize squadron pilots with its operation. In addition, the China Lake ATARS team, in conjunction with a Boeing modification team, modified an additional VMFA-332 aircraft to the ATARS configuration within 27 hours, on site in Beaufort.
As the ATARS team prepared to deploy, Dave Ferrucci, F/A-18 tactical reconnaissance program team lead at the AWL, talked about their part in ATARS development. "The AWL's job in a nut shell is to ensure that new or upgraded avionics components installed onto or into the F/A-18 aircraft are integrated properly. We were charged with performing integration testing of the ATARS pallet with the F/A-18D aircraft and the 13C Operational Flight Program."
Only 11 days after the test team headed east, word came from Gary Kessler of PMA-265 at the Naval Air Systems Command, "The C-5 (the team transport plane) is on the ramp at Beaufort. Squadrons are in briefings to depart in less than 24 hours. We have conducted eight ATARS training flights in the last few days and all have been very successful. Connectivity with the team in theater has been worked out. The team has done an outstanding job over the last few weeks pulling everything together and are committed to making sure that this will be a successful deployment of ATARS."
And it was successful. Initially, the ATARS imagery was used only within the squadron. The test team personnel stayed with the unit until the commander felt ready to take full control of the system. Once the operators felt confident in operating the system, they were available for regular assignments from the combined Air Operations in Vicenza, Italy, where the air war was being managed. They then moved on to Hungary, where ATARS-equipped aircraft operated with a full load-out of both air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons with the ATARS sensors installed.
Attesting to the success of ATARS in Kosovo, the following is an excerpt from a message from Lt. Col. R. Jones, commanding officer of VMFA(AW)-332. "On behalf of the Marines in this operation and me personally, thank you for your hard work on a very, very difficult and under-funded program. You have delivered a system that made a significant impact on this squadron's success in combat. I am not overstating the case that your efforts saved lives and greatly enhanced our targeting success."