Tactical air navigation system

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Typical US Air Force TACAN site using a dB Systems Model 900E TACAN Antenna

A tactical air navigation system, commonly referred to by the acronym TACAN, is a navigation system used by military aircraft. It provides the user with bearing and distance (slant-range or hypotenuse) to a ground or ship-borne station. It is from an end-user perspective a more accurate version of the VOR/DME system that provides bearing and range information for civil aviation. The DME portion of the TACAN system is available for civil use; at VORTAC facilities where a VOR is combined with a TACAN, civil aircraft can receive VOR/DME readings. Aircraft equipped with TACAN avionics can use this system for enroute navigation as well as non-precision approaches to landing fields.

The typical TACAN onboard user panel has control switches for setting the channel (corresponding to the desired surface station's assigned frequency), the operation mode for either transmit/receive (T/R, to get both bearing and range) or receive only (REC, to get bearing but not range). Capability was later upgraded to include an air-to-air mode (A/A), where two airborne users can get relative slant-range and/or bearing information depending on specific installations,[1] though an air-to-air bearing is noticeably less precise than a ground-to-air bearing. A TACAN only equipped aircraft cannot receive bearing information from a VOR-only station.


TACAN symbol on aeronautical charts

The TACAN navigation system is an evolution of radio transponder navigation systems that date back to the British Oboe system of World War II. In the United States, many companies were involved with the development of TACAN for military aircraft. Hoffman Laboratories Div. of the Hoffman Electronics Corp.–Military Products Division[2] (now NavCom Defense Electronics)[3] was a leader in developing the present TACAN system in the US starting in the late 1950s.


TACAN in general can be described as the military version of the VOR/DME system, though despite providing similar information as its civilian counterpart, its method of operation is significantly different. It operates in the UHF frequency band 962-1213 MHz, utilizing a pulse-pair transponder system not dissimilar to that of secondary surveillance RADAR. Interrogating aircraft transmit in the 1024-1150 MHz band, split into 1 MHz channels numbered 1-126; the responding station (ground, ship, or another aircraft) is 63 MHz (63 channels) above or below the originating frequency, depending on the channel and mode of operation selected. Spacing between pulses in an individual pulse-pair is also determined by TACAN operating mode.


Range information is functionally identical to the method provided by civilian DME: pairs of 3.5 microsecond (μs) pulses (measured edge-to-edge at 50% modulation strength) from an aircraft are repeated by the station being interrogated, using the round-trip time to calculate slant-range distance. Randomized spacing between interrogation pulse-pairs allows the interrogator to separate its own signal from that of other aircraft, enabling multiple users to access the ranging function without mutual interference. A fixed-round trip delay time (dependent on system mode) is added to each pulse-pair when being retransmitted by its station. The interrogator will generate up to 150 pulse-pairs per second when first acquiring a station in range in "search" mode, then drop down to ≈30 per second when acquired in "track" mode. Memory circuits in the ranging function enable a track to be quickly reestablished when ranging pulses are temporarily suppressed by other TACAN functions (see below).


Bearing information is derived from amplitude modulation (AM) of the responding station's pulse-pair signals, the AM signal being generated via physical rotation of a station's directional antenna or electronic steering of the same signal using an antenna array. Two AM signals are generated: a fundamental AM signal at 15 Hz, and an auxiliary AM signal (implemented using fixed signal reflectors in rotating-antenna installations) at 135 Hz, the ninth harmonic of the fundamental signal. These correspond to a "coarse" and "fine" bearing signal, the latter improving the accuracy of the former. The time is compared between the point of peak positive signal strength with a reference train or "burst" of pulse-pairs of specific repetition rate and duration, timed to transmit at a specific point in the signal's sweep; these replace the all other pulse types when transmitted. The civilian VOR system differs from TACAN in utilizing a single continuous-wave 30 Hz modulation signal, using the phase difference between a fixed-phase and variable phase (rotating) component to derive bearing info.

Squitter function[edit]

TACAN stations transmit pulse-pairs at a composite rate of 3600 pairs/second: 900 of which are bearing reference bursts, and the other 2700 being composed of ranging and identification pulses. When insufficient interrogation pulses from aircraft are present, the station will use a squitter circuit to inject additional randomized pulse-pairs to maintain the desired pulse rate. This ensures that sufficient signal is present to support demodulating bearing signals.


TACAN stations are identified by Morse code. The transmitting station periodically replaces the randomized ranging pulse-pairs with regularly spaced pairs that de-modulate to a 1350 Hz tone, keying a three-letter identification code at approximately 6-7 wpm every 40 seconds. Ranging and squitter pulses are permitted during the gaps between dots and dashes. There is no capability for voice transmission in a TACAN-only system.

Operating modes[edit]

There are two basic channel configurations available: X (the original implementation) and Y (added in the 1960s to expand available channels and reduce mutual interference between closely-spaced stations). These configurations differ in pulse-pair width, fixed receiver response delay, and polarity of frequency offset from the interrogation channel. TACAN interrogators can operate in four modes: receive (for bearing/identification only), transmit/receive (for bearing, range, and ID), and air-to-air versions of the previous two.

TACAN operating specifications, derived from MIL-STD-291C[4]
Channel/operating mode Interrogator frequency (MHz)/channel Response frequency offset (±63 MHz) Interrogator pulse-pair width (μs) Response delay spacing (μs) Response pulse-pair width (μs) Main/auxiliary reference burst length (pulse pairs) Main/auxiliary reference burst pulse-pair spacing (μs) Main/auxiliary reference burst synchronization point
X channels, air-to-ground 1025-1150 (1-126) negative (1-63)
positive (64-127)
12 50 12 12/6 12/24 Positive peak of AM signal pointed due east when main burst triggered; auxiliary burst synchronized to same event, but suppressed during main burst transmission
Y channels, air-to-ground positive (1-63)
negative (64-127)
36 74 30 13/13 30/15
(both single pulse)
X channels, air-to-air 12 62 single pulse Same as air-to-ground, if supported
Y channels, air-to-air 24 74

Performance and accuracy[edit]

A VORTAC installation in Germany; the TACAN antenna is the highest antenna in the center.

When initially deployed, TACAN was intended to provide a bearing accuracy of ±0.22°, based on the main bearing signal's own accuracy of ±2° and the corrections applied by the ninth-harmonic auxiliary bearing signal.[5] Theoretically a TACAN should provide a 9-fold increase in accuracy compared to a VOR, but operational use has shown only an approximate 3-fold increase.[6]

Operational accuracy of the 135 Hz azimuth component is ±1° or ±63 m at 3.75 km.[7]

Manufacturers of TACAN sets mention the ability to track stations out to 400NM, though these systems will cap their instrumented range signals at approximately 200NM.[8] Per official FAA service volume information, reliable TACAN/DME reception can be guaranteed out to 130NM below 45,000 feet above the surface for a high-altitude certified unit.[9]

On the first Space Shuttle flight, Capcom Joseph P. Allen reported up to the crew that their TACANs had locked onto the Channel 111X signals at St. Petersburg, FL at a range of 250 miles.


A shipboard TACAN antenna on USS Raleigh (LPD-1) with a lightning rod extending above it

Because the azimuth and range units are combined in one system it provides for simpler installation. Less space is required than a VOR because a VOR requires a large counterpoise and a fairly complex phased antenna system. A TACAN system theoretically might be placed on a building, a large truck, an airplane or a ship, and be operational in a short period of time. An airborne TACAN receiver can be used in air-to-air mode, which allows two cooperating aircraft to find their relative bearings and distance.


For military usage a primary drawback is lack of the ability to control emissions (EMCON) and stealth. Naval TACAN operations are designed so an aircraft can find the ship and land. Since there is no encryption, an enemy can use the range and bearing provided to attack a ship equipped with a TACAN. Some TACANs have the ability to employ a "Demand Only" mode: only transmitting when interrogated by an aircraft on-channel. It is likely that TACAN will be replaced with a differential GPS system similar to the Local Area Augmentation System called JPALS. The Joint Precision Approach and Landing System has a low probability of intercept to prevent enemy detection and an aircraft carrier version can be used for autoland operations.

Some systems used in the United States modulate the transmitted signal by using a 900 RPM rotating antenna. Since this antenna is fairly large and must rotate 24 hours a day, possibly causing reliability issues. Modern systems have antennas that use electronic rotation (instead of mechanical rotation), hence no moving parts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rockwell International (July 7, 1992). "Aircraft rendezvous using low data rate two-way TACAN bearing information". Archived from the original on June 12, 2011.
  2. ^ Missiles and Rockets, July 20, 1959, v. 5, no. 30, p. 127.
  3. ^ http://www.navcom.com/ NavCom Defense Electronics
  4. ^ "MIL-STD-291 C TACTICAL AIR NAVIGATION SIGNAL". everyspec.com. Retrieved 2024-03-18.
  5. ^ TACAN Operation - US Navy Training Film 1955, 11 September 2021, retrieved 2024-03-18
  6. ^ Helfrick, Albert D. (2007). Principles of Avionics (4th ed.). Avionics Communications Inc. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-885544-26-1. Retrieved 2023-05-29.
  7. ^ Department of Transportation and Department of Defense (March 25, 2002). "2001 Federal Radionavigation Systems" (PDF). Retrieved November 27, 2005.
  8. ^ "TACAN+ | Tactical Airborne Navigation System | L3Harris". www.l3harris.com. Retrieved 2024-03-18.
  9. ^ "Navigation Aids". Aeronautical Information Manual. Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 2024-03-17.

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