In 1980, a Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) was introduced. This was a reconnaissance pod that could be attached to the underside of the Tomcat on the left rear Phoenix missile station between the engines. The TARPS was initially conceived as an interim system pending the availability of the McDonnell Douglas RF-18, the dedicated photographic reconnaissance version of the Hornet. The TARPS pod is 17 feet 3 inches long and weighs about 1650 pounds. This pod was designed for low- to medium-altitude reconnaissance and carried a KS-87 frame camera (vertical or forward oblique), an Itek KA-99 panoramic camera giving horizon to horizon coverage, and an AAD-5 infrared line scanner. The TARPS pod also carries an AN/ASQ-172 data display system which puts event markers on the film output to aid in later photo interpration.. The pod displays data to the RIO, and is controlled from stations installed in the rear cockpit.
The TARPS imposes very little penalty on aircraft performance or flight characteristics and does not interfere with the carriage or launch of the missiles. However, TARPS-capable Tomcats must be specially wired in order to carry the pod. All of the F-14Ds are TARPS-capable, but only some of the F-14As are so equipped.
This system was first deployed in the second half of 1981, with VF-84 aboard the Nimitz and with VF-122 aboard the Constellation. With the retirement of the last RF-8G Crusaders in the spring of 1982, TARPS-equipped Tomcats became the Navy's primary tactical reconnaissance system. One of the tasks assigned to TARPS-equipped F-14As was to photograph Soviet long-rang surveillance aircraft, documenting and cataloging the different types of equipment carried by these aircraft. It is possible that TARPS-equipped F-14As were used in Central America to spy on the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
The TARPS-equipped F-14 will replaced in the reconnaissance role by the ATARS (Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System) acquired for the F/A-18E/F.