USAF defends performance of Gorgon Stare sensor

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US Air Force officials past and present have jumped to the defence of the service's much-touted new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system, after a draft report that detailed its testing as a flop circulated around the Beltway.

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

But retired Lt Gen David Deptula, who until last August was the USAF's deputy chief of staff for ISR, says the problems listed in the leaked report were caused by the testing process and human errors, and not by the system itself.

"The test programme was not sufficiently constructed to objectively evaluate the capabilities of the system," Deptula says. "The biggest issue is that the data the testers used for their report was primarily from the first part of the operational utility evaluation, during which there were definite problems. Many of them were procedural issues, not technology issues."

The air force also points out that the January memo includes issues that already have fixes in place, and that the service does not believe it will affect the deployment schedule. The USAF said in early January that the system was expected to be fielded "within two months".

According to the draft report, 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 the 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 report lists deficient infrared performance, "numerous" interoperability problems, a lack of stability and reliability problems.

The document, obtained and circulated by Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, also says Gorgon Stare was "developed with no formal requirements", which is a growing trend for rapidly developed new technologies designed to meet specific needs in theatre.

"This system is being fielded to meet a Combatant Command requirement for a persistent, wide-area surveillance capability that allows multiple users to access the data from one platform," the USAF says.

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.

Senior air force officials say that 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.

Sierra Nevada could not be reached for comment.