USAF nears final piece of airborne ISR rebirth for Afghanistan

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The US Air Force is within two months of installing the final piece of a broad shake-up of its approach to airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in Afghanistan.

Sierra Nevada's Gorgon Stare pod is expected to be deployed to Afghanistan before April. The pod adds as many as 12 video cameras to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle.

On the ground, processors can further split up the video feeds into 50 different spots, allowing a single aircraft to stare across a city like an unblinking eye.

The USAF confirms that the pod remains in final tests before deployment, which was originally scheduled for late 2010.

Gorgon Stare - named for Medusa and her sisters in Greek mythology - represents the final piece of a broader airborne ISR strategy hastily launched by USAF leadership in May 2008. The move came only one month after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly called out the service's top officials for moving too slowly to support ground troops in Afghanistan.

By the end of June 2008, Gates had fired the USAF's top leaders - Michael Wynne and Gen Michael Moseley - even as the new strategy started moving forward.

Until virtually that moment, USAF officials had stood by as the US Army and US Marine Corps had launched a new wave of airborne ISR assets to support the unique needs of counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In particular, the USMC had deployed a system called Angel Fire, using Beechcraft King Air 90s equipped with wide field of view cameras featuring instant playback capability.

Seven years after the Afghan war began, the USAF responded by launching three initiatives in May 2008. It launched the MC-12 Liberty programme, which has rapidly fielded nearly 40 King Air 350ERs to Afghanistan.

The air force also hired 2,500 intelligence analysts to help process the influx of new intelligence data. Gorgon Stare forms the third piece of the new strategy.

The Sierra Nevada pod is intended to solve the problem of a chronic shortage of MQ-9s. The USAF is funded to operate 50 continuous "orbits" by MQ-9s around the world. Until now, each MQ-9 came equipped with a single camera, providing a "soda straw" view of the battlespace. Fielding Gorgon Stare means one of those orbits will be equipped with as many as 12 cameras generating up to 50 video feeds.

The number of Gorgon Stare pods remains relatively small. The USAF has been funded to deploy one set of pods this year and in 2012, plus a third set of pods in fiscal year 2014, leaving 47 orbits without the system.