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Gorgon Stare to Deploy

Downplaying a report that found flaws in the system, the Air Force’s combat chief says the Gorgon Stare wide-area surveillance system is ready to deploy this month. Gen. William Fraser, head of Air Combat Command, did not name the deployment location, but Gorgon Stare is expected to go to Afghanistan.

The system has “met issues…but we are on track to deploy next month,” said Fraser at a conference with reporters in February.

A terrifying female creature derived from the ancient Greek term for “dreadful,” the Gorgon gave its name to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system that employs two external pods carried by the MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA). The system comes with its own ground station that can operate in the field even when a pilot and sensor operator are controlling the flight of the MQ-9 from a different, distant location. The system is independent of the Reaper’s chin-mounted sensor ball, but a Reaper carrying the Gorgon Stare (GS) pods cannot carry ordnance. The Air Force says the Gorgon Stare system does not have a military designation.

ALL-SEEING SYSTEM

Gorgon Stare uses nine video cameras, each capable of providing a live overhead imagery stream of a different area of interest. Until now, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones have relied on a single-camera capability. Compared with current drone-carried ISR tools, GS advocates say, the new system will increase by ten times the number of direct video feeds to combat troops on the ground and will permit surveillance of an entire city.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper in a hangar on Joint Base Balad.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle sits in a shelter on Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2008, prior to a mission. Larger and more powerful than the MQ-1 Predator, the Reaper can carry up to 3,750 pounds of laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles. When carrying the Gorgon Stare pods, however, the Reaper at present will be unable to carry ordnance. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson, U.S. Air Force

The Air Force’s Big Safari office, which often handles fast track, low-profile reconnaissance projects, developed the GS system.

Officials were praising Gorgon Stare when it first received public attention in an above-the-fold article in the Washington Post on January 2. Gorgon Stare, the article reported, would scrutinize city-sized areas from the Reaper and transmit pieces, or chips, of that imagery to individual military members, who would scan roads for bombs or insurgents. The system was billed as being able to monitor 65 targets at once. In the event of an ambush or bombing, analysts could look back through existing Gorgon Stare wide-area images to conduct a forensic search for the perpetrators.

Three weeks after the Post article triggered widespread press coverage, however, a critical Pentagon assessment came to light. The report claimed that GS has so many flaws that it is “not operationally effective.” An evaluator’s report used capital letters to urge: “DO NOT field” the system.

The USAF’s 53rd Wing of its Air Combat Command at Eglin tested Gorgon Stare in an “operational utility evaluation.” Its test report found 13 major flaws in the system. According to the report, Gorgon Stare “cannot readily find and identify targets (especially human targets), and it cannot reliably locate what it sees. (Moving targets of any size at any location present a different problem.)”

Supporters of GS argue that the test program was not constructed to objectively evaluate the capabilities of the system. They also point out that Gorgon Stare is in the first increment of a multi-increment program, and the second increment will offer greater reliability and expanded capabilities. Fraser told reporters the flaws found during the Eglin evaluation have been “fixed.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...