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Proposed drone spy system fails testing, according to draft report

The 'all-seeing eye' called Gorgon Stare had trouble tracking people in the day and vehicles at night. The findings are a blow to the Pentagon's plans to rush the surveillance device to Afghanistan.

January 25, 2011|David S. Cloud and Ken Dilanian, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A proposed Air Force surveillance system for unmanned drones has so many flaws that it is "not operationally effective," according to a draft Pentagon test assessment made public Monday.

The findings are a blow to the Pentagon's plans to rush the system, known as the Gorgon Stare, to Afghanistan this winter to improve the military's ability to track insurgents. It is also a setback for the system's maker, Sierra Nevada Corp., a Nevada-based company with California operations.

The device, which transmits live video from nine cameras on the drone's belly, is intended to allow soldiers and analysts to keep constant watch on nearly everything that moves within a three-mile area. It has been in development for the last two years.

Over the last year, Air Force officials have touted the system as an "all-seeing eye" and a revolutionary advance over drones' current surveillance system, which provides a single video feed of a much smaller area.

But in testing that began in October, the new system had trouble tracking humans during the day and larger objects, such as vehicles, at night, according to the assessment that was marked "draft" and "predecisional" by weapons testers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Even when the Gorgon Stare could find such targets, it could not determine their exact location, which is necessary to fire weapons at them. The camera system "is not operationally effective and operationally suitable," according to the report, which recommended against deploying it.

Maintenance and reliability problems also plagued the testing. Overall, the system was available only 64% of the time, the report said, and would require "prohibitive" maintenance and upkeep.

In a statement Monday, the Air Force said that a final version of the report was completed this month and that it was working to resolve problems with the system.

"This is a very advanced technology the Air Force is developing rapidly to meet warfighter requirements," the statement said. The system "would not be fielded" until commanders in Afghanistan are satisfied it is ready, the statement said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior Pentagon officials have pressed the Air Force over the last year to deploy the system in Afghanistan.

Mullen "had been in favor of fielding the system as soon as practicable, with the expectation that adjustments would be made as needed once it was in the field," said his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby.

The draft report was made public by Winslow T. Wheeler, a defense budget specialist and frequent Pentagon critic at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington policy research organization.

The Gorgon Stare "can't see much, [and] when it can see something it can't tell you where it is," meaning it's of no use in targeting a weapon, said Wheeler, a former Senate staffer and investigator for the Government Accountability Office.

Sierra Nevada Corp., which is known for its work on developing parts for spy satellites, did not respond to a request for an interview.

If working properly, the Gorgon Stare would do the job of at least three currently configured Reaper drones. But testing revealed that the cameras, although capable of tracking vehicles during the day, could not track people who get out of vehicles and blend into the landscape.

The infrared video "is marginally sufficient to track vehicles; it is not sufficient to track dismounts," the tests found, referring to people.

The system also proved unable to mark a target using a laser, making use of laser-guided missiles impossible. And an "unpredictable software error" generated faulty map coordinates in several tests, the report said.

The video system also sometimes "drops frames" for some time, making it difficult to track moving targets.

If and when it works correctly, the Gorgon Stare "gives you a massive amount of knowledge of what's playing out in the battlefield that you didn't have before," said Peter Singer,  author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

Unmanned Predator drones offer what analysts sometimes call a "soda straw" view of the battle space, Singer said. 

Ideally, computers would take images from the Gorgon Stare and "quilt" them into a mosaic showing a large swath of territory, military officials said. That would enable the Defense Department to keep unblinking watch on a midsize city or village — turning the Reapers into a kind of heavily armed traffic camera.

dcloud@tribune.com

kdilanian@tribune.com

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