Gorgon Stare tests reveal long list of problems

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The US Air Force's much-touted new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system may not be in the air over Afghanistan any time soon. Service documents reveal a long list of problems that render the system unusable and the recommendation that it not be fielded.

Gorgon Stare - billed as an "all-seeing eye" that puts a cluster of up to 12 cameras on a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle - has been deemed "not operationally effective" and "not operationally suitable" by the 53rd Wing at Eglin AFB in Florida, which was charged with testing the system.

After conducting seven initial sorties totalling 64 flight hours, the test team called the system deficient and its imagery unusable, and a pause in testing was called as of 11 November to allow for software modifications and changes to the pod. But even after changes were made and tests resumed - eventually totalling 20 sorties and 234h in the air - the overall assessment was that Gorgon Stare "is not operationally effective and not operationally suitable." The draft report lists deficient infrared performance, "numerous" interoperability problems, a lack of stability and reliability problems.

Blame for the problems with the more than $450 million programme will be hard to place, as the document, obtained and circulated by Winslow T Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, also says Gorgon Stare "was developed with no formal requirements."

Developed by Sierra Nevada, Gorgon Stare provides imagery from five electro-optical cameras and four infrared cameras in one pod through a separate processor pod for day and night-time surveillance operations over an extremely wide area. Top air force officials said with Gorgon Stare, the future of ISR would be limited only by the human ability to process the information gathered. The pod was also set to solve the shortage of Reapers by making one UAV capable of offering up to 50 video feeds.

But in practice, Gorgon Stare may actually be a step backwards, Wheeler says. The draft report, dated 30 December, says the multi-camera design that should be such a boon to intelligence operators actually has gaps where the separate images should stitch together, leaving "a large black triangle moving throughout the image."

"Beyond the 'seams' between images, the image quality is degraded from what users in the field have come to expect," Wheeler says. "The better quality imagery that is obtained from the computer pod after flight takes too long to download."

The report also details Gorgon Stare's deficient infrared system, making night operations problematic at best, and says the system cannot track people on the ground in real time and encounters a delay of 12-18sec in sending real-time images to the ground.

The USAF says the pod will only be fielded when the commander in theatre accepts it. Funding has been approved for one set of pods this year and in 2012, plus a third set of pods in fiscal year 2014. Gorgon Stare was originally slated to deploy to Afghanistan in late 2010. The air force confirmed in early January that the system was still in flight test but was expected to be fielded "within two months."