Air Force’s new tool: ‘We can see ev­ery­thing’

But multi-eyed spy drone set for Afghanistan may be limited by ground in­tel­li­gence


In an­cient times, Gor­gon was a myth­i­cal Greek crea­ture whose un­blink­ing eyes turned to stone those who be­held them. In mod­ern times, Gor­gon may be one of the mil­i­tary’s most valu­able new tools.

This win­ter, the Air Force is set to de­ploy to Afghanistan what it says is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary air­borne sur­veil­lance sys­tem called Gor­gon Stare, which will be able to trans­mit live video im­ages of phys­i­cal 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.”

Ques­tions per­sist, how­ever, about whether the mil­i­tary has the ca­pa­bil­ity to sift through huge quan­ti­ties of im­agery quickly enough to con­vey use­ful data to troops in the field.

Of­fi­cials also ac­knowl­edge that Gor­gon Stare is of limited value un­less they can match it with im­proved hu­man in­tel­li­gence — eye­wit­ness re­ports of who is do­ing what on the ground.

The Air Force is ex­po­nen­tially in­creas­ing sur­veil­lance across Afghanistan. The monthly num­ber of un­manned and manned air­craft sur­veil­lance sor­ties has more than dou­bled since last Jan­uary, and quadru­pled since the be­gin­ning of 2009.

In­deed, of­fi­cials say, they can­not keep pace with the de­mand.

“I have yet to go a week in my job here with­out hav­ing a request for more Air Force sur­veil­lance out there,” Poss said.

But adding Gor­gon Stare will also gen­er­ate oceans of more data to process.

“ To­day an an­a­lyst sits there and stares at Death TV for hours on end, try­ing to find the sin­gle tar­get or see some­thing move,” Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a con­fer­ence in New Or­leans in­Novem­ber. “It’s just a waste of man­power.”

The hunger for these high-tech tools was ev­i­dent at the con­fer­ence, where of­fi­cials told sev­eral thou­sand in­dus­try and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials they had to move “at the speed of war.” Cartwright pressed for so­lu­tions, even par­tial ones, in a year or less.

The devel­op­ment of Gor­gon Stare be­gan about 18 months ago. It is based on the work of Air Force sci­en­tists who came up with the idea of stitch­ing to­gether views from mul­ti­ple cam­eras shoot­ing two frames per sec­ond at half-me­ter res­o­lu­tion. Cur­rently full-mo­tion video is shot at 30 frames per sec­ond from one cam­era mounted on a Preda­tor or the larger Reaper drone. That makes for more fluid video, but also more dif­fi­culty in as­sem­bling frames quickly to get the wide-area view.

Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances now make it pos­si­ble for a sol­dier on the ground to re­ceive any por­tion of a panoramic view in real time, streamed to a por­ta­ble de­vice about the size of an iPad, Poss said. At the same time, nine other sol­diers can get the same or a dif­fer­ent view. The im­ages will be stored so an­a­lysts can study them to de­ter­mine, for in­stance, who planted an im­pro­vised bomb or what the pat­terns of life in a vil­lage are.

The Air Force has also taken tips from the pur­vey­ors of pop cul­ture. It is work­ing with Har­ris Corp. to adapt ESPN’s tech­nique of tag­ging key mo­ments in Na­tional Foot­ball League video­tape to the war­zone. Just as a sports­caster can call up a se­ries of archived quar­ter­back blitzes as soon as a player is sacked on the field, an an­a­lyst in Afghanistan can re­trieve the last month’s worth of bomb­ings in a par­tic­u­lar stretch of road with the push of a but­ton, of­fi­cials said.

The Air Force placed a con­trac­tor on the set of a re­al­ity TV show to learn how to pick out the in­ter­est­ing scenes shot from cam­eras si­mul­ta­ne­ously record­ing the ac­tion

“There will be no way for the ad­ver­sary to know what we’re look­ing at, and we can see ev­ery­thing.”

— Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, as­sis­tant Air Force deputy chief of staff for in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance

in a house. And tak­ing a page from high-tech com­pa­nies such as Google, the Air Force will store its reams of video on servers placed in used ship­ping con­tain­ers in Iowa.

The Air Force is look­ing to mount wide-area sur­veil­lance cam­eras on air­ships that can stay aloft for up to two weeks.

“ This is all cut­ting-edge technology that is be­ing fielded in a short pe­riod of time,” said re­tired Lt. Gen. David A. Dep­tula, who served as deputy chief of staff for in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance.

“If you look into the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, what these tech­nolo­gies will al­low us to do is re­move more and more ground forces and re­place them with sen­sors where we nor­mally would have to rely on peo­ple go­ing some­where to find some­thing out,” he said.

But other mil­i­tary of­fi­cials cau­tion that a coun­terin­sur­gency re­quires an un­der­stand­ing of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. “ That re­ally only comes from hu­man in­tel­li­gence or boots on the ground,” said Army Col. Steven A. Beck­man, the for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief for coali­tion forces in Kan­da­har in south­ern Afghanistan.

“We can get the 3-D geo-in­tel­li­gence that tells us what ev­ery build­ing, what ev­ery street looks like in Marja,” Beck­man said at the U.S. Geospa­tial In­tel­li­gence Foun­da­tion con­fer­ence in New Or­leans in Novem­ber. But such in­tel­li­gence needs to be “un­der­pinned by a de­gree of lo­cal knowl­edge . . . to en­able us to max­i­mize that.”

Beck­man called full-mo­tion video “ the crack co­caine of our ground forces” — but of­ten, he said, it’s a technology that is poorly uti­lized.

He noted in an in­ter­view that he is an ad­vo­cate of the technology but that in some cases, other tools might be a bet­ter so­lu­tion for a com­man­der’s needs.

Ma­rine Capt. Matt Pot­tinger, who col­lab­o­rated on “Fix­ing In­tel,” an of­fi­cial cri­tique of the in­tel­li­gence ef­fort in Afghanistan is­sued a year ago, said he found a dis­con­nect be­tween the in­tel­li­gence re­quests for aerial sur­veil­lance is­sued by com­man­ders in re­gional head­quar­ters and the needs of the sol­diers or Marines at the pla­toon level.

“Of­ten what the guys need it for is not to stare at some high­way for five hours be­cause they want to drop a bomb on some guy they see com­ing out to dig a hole in the ground to plant an IED,” he said. “Of­ten­times, the ques­tions that the sol­diers and Marines need an­swered are ‘Where’s the traf­fic? Where are the cars go­ing? Are they ac­tu­ally us­ing this strip of desert or com­pletely by­pass­ing this district?’ ”

Pot­tinger, avis­it­ing fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said an­a­lysts in re­gional head­quar­ters should meet with troops in the field to un­der­stand their needs, oth­er­wise all the “whiz-bang” gear will never be used to its full po­ten­tial.

Gor­gon Stare is be­ing tested now, and of­fi­cials hope it will be fielded within two months. Each $17.5 mil­lion pod weighs 1,100 pounds and, be­cause of its con­fig­u­ra­tion, will not be mounted with weapons on Reaper air­craft, of­fi­cials said. They en­vi­sion it will have civil­ian ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing se­cur­ing bor­ders and aid­ing in nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity is ex­plor­ing the technology’s po­ten­tial, an in­dus­try of­fi­cial said.

Poss said he would “never den­i­grate the need for good, solid hu­man in­tel­li­gence, be­cause even watch­ing an en­tire city means noth­ing un­less you can put con­text to it.”

But, he said, “ be­ing able to watch an en­tire city, I’m con­vinced, is go­ing to have a huge im­pact on op­er­a­tions in the war zone.”



Eyes in the Sky Aerial drones have be­come a fix­ture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With their abil­ity to con­duct sur­veil­lance and de­liver in­creas­ingly lethal pay­loads, they have changed the na­ture of war. But their use has also prompted a de­bate over their ap­pli­ca­tion for sur­veil­lance in the United States, and made them the envy of mil­i­taries around the world. This ar­ti­cle is the first in an oc­ca­sional look at the ex­pand­ing use of drones and the re­sult­ing im­pli­ca­tions for govern­ment, in­dus­try and civil­ians.

Soar­ing de­mand

The Air Force has ex­po­nen­tially in­creased its spy plane mis­sions over Afghanistan. The monthly num­ber of in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance sor­ties has more than quadru­pled since Jan­uary 2009.

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