Sunday, January 02, 2011

"We Can See Everything"

There's little doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles have revolutionized modern warfare. Beginning with Israel's Bekka Valley campaign in 1982, and (more recently) with U.S. Predator and Reaper drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, UAVs have proved invaluable in monitoring enemy activity in real time, and relaying that information to intelligence analysts and commanders on the ground.

And drone aircraft are no longer limited to the surveillance mission. With the addition of Hellfire missiles on Predators and Reapers, the intelligence platforms have become killers as well, allowing near-instantaneous attacks against fleeting targets--without having to wait for strike aircraft and helicopters.

Still, there has been one major drawback in UAV operations. For tactical UAVs, wide-angle surveillance is typically limited to a few square blocks, and that area decreases as sensor operators zoom into specific targets or areas of interest. As a result, intel analysts and ground troops may miss critical activity occurring less than a mile away, with potentially deadly consequences for allied forces. Other platforms (most notably Global Hawk) offer wider coverage, but those feeds are not always available for small-unit operations.

But the days of "soda straw" UAV coverage are apparently coming to an end. According to the Washington Post, the Air Force is set to deploy a new UAV sensor suite to Afghanistan in the coming months. Nicknamed Gorgon Stare, the system consists of multiple cameras mounted on a single drone, allowing it to monitor movement across an entire town.

The system, made up of nine video cameras mounted on a remotely piloted aircraft, can transmit live images to soldiers on the ground or to analysts tracking enemy movements. It can send up to 65 different images to different users; by contrast, Air Force drones today shoot video from a single camera over a "soda straw" area the size of a building or two.

With the new tool, analysts will no longer have to guess where to point the camera, said Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, the Air Force's assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything."

While there's little doubt that Gorgon is a potential game-changer in terms of ISR, there are legitimate questions about the military's ability to sift through reams of video imagery, and deliver the right frames to the war-fighter at the right time. There's also the matter of trying to fuse drone images with human intelligence reporting, providing a more complete picture of the battlefield.

Accomplishing those goals is easier said than done. The public image of UAV warfare is that of a Predator or Reaper orbiting over Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, controlled remotely by a two-man crew sitting at their pilot and sensor operator consoles at a base in Nevada. It's an impressive technological feat, but that's only the operational half of the equation.

The much larger job of monitoring and analyzing data gathered by the drones is handled by dozens of intelligence analysts, some in the war zone, but mostly in the rear area, at places like Langley AFB, Virginia and Beale AFB, California. Some of the spooks monitor the feed in real time (providing immediate feedback to troops on the ground), while others wade through hours of archived footage.

In fact, one of the real challenges faced by the Air Force has been "growing" the intel architecture needed to support the UAV mission. Currently, the USAF maintains at least 21 constant drone orbits in the war zone (and that number is expected to grow). Each mission requires the support of scores of airmen on the ground who must process the information.

Creating a cadre of intelligence personnel with the required skills has been difficult. First, there's the security clearance issue; it often takes 18 months--or longer--to grant someone a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) clearance. The Air Force intelligence school at Goodfellow AFB, Texas, is one of the longest in the service, for both officers and enlisted. Beyond that, it takes months of on-the-job training before someone is qualified to support the UAV mission without over-the-shoulder supervision.

The steady increase in drone missions (and their data haul) has triggered a corresponding increase in the workload for intel specialists. Teams assigned to UAV or U-2 missions at Langley, Beale or other Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) sites often work 12-14 hour shifts, six days a week. The schedule takes its toll on analysts, as does worrying about what they might have missed. On rare occasion, DCGS support teams have watched in horror as a convoy or patrol they're supporting encounters an IED, despite hours of preparatory UAV surveillance.

But on the other hand, analysts also have the satisfaction of detecting roadside bombs or ambush sites before they can be employed against our troops. So hours of staring at "Death TV" isn't a waste of manpower and resources, as Joint Chiefs Joint Chairman, General James Cartwright, suggested at a conference in New Orleans last year. Indeed, war-fighter requests for UAV support have risen almost exponentially in recent years, leading to that big increase in drone orbits--and the Air Force's scramble to support that request.

While almost everyone agrees that Gorgon Stare brings important capabilities to the battlefield, some officers caution that the additional imagery means little without the proper "context," provided through human intelligence or HUMINT. Meshing those information streams has been difficult in the past, reflecting a long-standing disconnect between imagery intelligence and the human collection element.

According to General Poss, the Air Force is now trying to fix that problem by assigning liaison teams to ground combat units. Their presence is aimed at improving the troops' knowledge of what the drones can--and cannot do--while gaining a better understanding of what ground forces need from the UAVs, beyond the target requests that arrive in ISR collection decks.

From a cost perspective, Gorgon Stare is relatively cheap; the system costs $17 million and it was fielded in less than two years. In fact, the affordability may (ultimately) prove a cause for concern.

It's no secret that some state and local law enforcement agencies are exploring the use of drones, assuming that flight safety and airspace control issues can be resolved with the FAA. Once those hurdles are overcome, it's not inconceivable that large states, or a consortium of local law enforcement agencies could purchase and operate their own UAVs, with wide-area systems similar to Gorgon Stare. The video feed from those platforms would be down-linked to state and regional fusion centers.

What might happen to the data after that is anyone's guess, but the potential for misuse remains. In its recent "Top Secret America" series, the Post detailed the rapid growth of local fusion centers, which are supposed to merge data from various police and security databases, providing better information for local law enforcement. In the Tennessee fusion center, Post reporters saw one spot on a map indicating "suspicious activity." It turned out to be the local headquarters of the ACLU (heh, heh).

In other states, analysts were more concerned about conservative groups and what they might be up to--never mind that the "reports" were often cryptic, and of little apparent value. Now, imagine your local fusion center with access to round-the-clock wide area surveillance, minus the experience found in military DCGS nodes. That's one reason that domestic UAV employment must be developed deliberately, to avoid a wholesale trampling of our individual liberties.

We clearly need Gorgon Stare in Iraq and Afghanistan--and even along our borders. The question of using it in major cities or on a regional basis (in support of law enforcement) is another matter, one that bears very careful consideration.

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