A Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet is shown here with its standard weapons load for defensive counter-air patrols: three AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, two AIM-9M Sidewinders, an AGM-88 HARM Anti-Radar Missle and a targeting FLIR. This aircraft also features the new Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Systesm (ATARS) in its nose. ATARS is being employed operationally for the first time with Marine aircraft deployed to Hungary in support of Operation Allied Force.

Photo by Capt. "Thumbs" Travers

(high resolution photos attached at end of article.)


WASHINGTON (Jun 10) -- The Marine Corps has employed a new airborne reconnaissance system with some of its F/A-18D Hornets deployed to Hungary in support of Operation Allied Force.

The Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS) is a real system, in a real aircraft that is producing output today. ATARS possesses unique capabilities that will provide a commander with timely imagery, including day and night infrared electro-optic intelligence collection. ATARS currently provides digitally-formatted reconnaissance data via mission tapes downloaded upon landing for processing, exploitation, and dissemination. Additionally, it provides an all-weather capability. The imagery collected by ATARS provides sufficient detail and accuracy to permit delivery of appropriate air and ground weapons, assist with battle damage assessment, and provide tactical commanders with information about the enemy they face.

Due to identified shortfalls in the combatant commander's ability to meet tactical reconnaissance requirements, the Marine Corps released ATARS from testing to provide an early operational capability to Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332, which deployed to Hungary during the last week of May with two ATARS-capable aircraft. Following several days of indoctrination briefs and familiarization flights, the squadron realized the first operational employment of the ATARS system, marking the end of an eight-year hiatus in the Marine Corps' tactical reconnaissance capability. Since that day, they have flown 22 ATARS sorties, equating to 60.5 flight hours, and collected quality imagery on every flight.

ATARS is being used in a variety of ways to support the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), deployed Hornet squadrons and, to a limited extent, the Joint Force Air Component Commander. Marine aircrews have been able to generate high-quality, tactically significant imagery on each ATARS sortie. ATARS' internally-mounted design allows the aircraft to retain full combat capability. On several occasions, this design feature has allowed the aircraft to accomplish several varieties of missions during a single sortie. As an example, while manning a defensive combat air patrol over Hungary, ATARS aircraft are able to produce synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery of targets deep inside Serbia. Another mission area that will be able to benefit from ATARS will be verification of treaty compliance when the Serbs start leaving Kosovo. At the time of this article's publication, ATARS is the only current or planned tactical reconnaissance system that offers a SAR capability, and thus the only tactical all-weather imagery system.

In conjunction with supporting contingency operations, the ATARS test program is still underway. Three aircrews from the test community are currently deployed with VMFA(AW)-332 to collect performance data from post-flight debriefs and to conduct further aircrew training.