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Fixing Terrorists with the Gorgon Stare

While nobody questions the value and utility of the first generation of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems now in the air, few would debate their basic limitations. Despite growing capabilities in payload, range, dwell time on station, and performance, most UAVs still cannot “see” particularly well. While airborne radar systems have been evolving rapidly, with improved resolution along with reduced weight and volume requirements, they still lack the fidelity and quality of high-resolution electro-optical collection systems. The basic sensor turrets on most UAVs, while providing excellent resolution and image quality, have extremely limited fields of regard. This translates into the metaphor used by many UAV operators of “looking down a soda straw” in terms of what they can see at any one time.

This limitation was fundamental to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ calls in his well-known 2008 speech at Maxwell AFB during the Iraq “surge” for additional M/RQ-1 Predator UAV “orbits” to be maintained 24/7. The secretary’s call for an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) surge was key to helping bring the first wide-area battlefield surveillance systems into service. The immediate result of this push for more and better ISR systems was the early deployment of several manned interim wide-area surveillance systems. These included the Marine Corps’ Angel Fire, the USAF MC-12W with the MX-15 sensor package under Project Liberty, and the Army’s C-23 Constant Hawk.

The reality is that the first generation of UAV sensor turrets had one or two cameras, providing a view of only a few degrees off boresight. This clearly is not what is required for persistent, wide area, high resolution surveillance like that needed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, distribution of the camera feeds from UAVs has normally required at least a SATCOM receiver and supporting video gear. This is hardly what one expects to find in a command HMMWV leading a convoy or column along a dusty, IED-infested road in Afghanistan. This has meant that UAVs can only cover relatively small areas, requiring additional airframes for real-time surveillance of the vast tracts that need to be watched, distributed to only a handful of commanders in real time.

Enter the U.S. Air Force’s Gorgon Stare sensor pod system.

Named for a female character from Greek mythology with a stare capable of turning its victims to stone, Gorgon Stare (formerly known as the Wide Area Airborne Surveillance System – WAAS) is a pod-based sensor package for the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAV. The system is packaged in a pair of 550 pound/250 kilogram pods which are designed to be hung on the inboard hardpoints of the Reaper, which normally would carry 500 pound bombs like the GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bomb (LGB) and the GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). This leaves the remaining midwing and outer wing hardpoints for carriage of other weapons like AMG-114 Hellfire missiles.

The initial (2nd Quarter FY-2010) Gorgon Stare sensor package is reported to be composed of five electro-optical still cameras, along with four imaging infrared (IIR) cameras each capable of tracking three moving targets simultaneously. This means that instead of only being able to track a single moving target in a high-resolution mode, a dozen can now be followed over a 2.4 mile/4 kilometer by 2.4 mile/4 kilometer area. An improved version of Gorgon Stare with six IIR cameras due in the summer of 2011, will provide tracking of up to 30 moving targets over a 4.8 mile/8 kilometer by 4.8 mile/8 kilometer area.

In addition, Gorgon Stare will act as an airborne router for surveillance video, with the improved version able to directly deliver up to 65 stored video clips for ground commanders. This will allow ground personnel to monitor and quickly review recent past events like improvised explosive device (IED) explosions for rapid responses against enemy placement and remote detonation teams. Current plans have ten USAF MQ-9 Reapers getting the $15 million Gorgon Stare pod sets, providing day and night coverage thanks to their IIR cameras. Combined with its improved distribution capabilities, Gorgon Stare should provide ground commanders with a significant new set of capabilities in fighting the key generators of casualties: IEDs and ambushes.

The deployment of Gorgon Stare in 2010 represents the next step in the maturing of unmanned ISR systems. The increases in target area and numbers covered, along with projected improvements in distribution of data from the sensor feeds, should provide commanders with a substantial improvement in battlefield situational awareness. Along with other wide area surveillance systems like the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System or ARGUS-IS scheduled to be carried by the new Boeing MQ-18A/A160 Hummingbird, Gorgon Stare is going to give ground commanders a better and timelier view of battlefields.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...