Gorgon Stare Blinks A Lot; Testers Say Don’t Field Til Fixed

Gorgon Stare, hailed by the Washington Post as an advanced ISR tool par excellence, should not be fielded now because it works less than the half time it should and is deemed by testers to be "not operationally suitable." The 53rd Wing of the Air Combat Command at Eglin Air Force Base made the recommendation in an operational utility evaluation.

Gorgon Stare, hailed by the Washington Post as an advanced ISR tool par excellence, should not be fielded now because it works less than the half time it should and is deemed by testers to be “not operationally suitable.”

The 53rd Wing of the Air Combat Command at Eglin Air Force Base made the recommendation in an operational utility evaluation.

Gorgon Stare is built by the Sierra Nevada Corp working under the aegis of the Air Force’s vaunted Big Safari (645th Aeronautical Systems Group), charged with developing promising weapon systems quickly and getting them into use. It provides imagery from five electro-optical cameras and four infrared cameras in one pod and is supposed to be able to do day and night operations. The sensors are flown on MQ-9 Reapers.

Here’s how the Post quoted a senior Air Force official about the system:

“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.'”

Here’s what Winslow Wheeler, former congressional defense budget expert and now with the Center for Defense Information, said about the system. (To his credit, Wheeler got a hold of the test memo. Check the memo for the official descriptions of the problems. Wheeler summarizes below.)

His summary of the problems runs thus:

“According to DOD testers, Gorgon Stare is ineffective (‘not operationally effective’) and unreliable (‘not operationally suitable’).  As described below, it cannot readily find and identify targets (especially human targets), and it cannot reliably locate what it sees.  (Moving targets of any size at any location present a different problem.)

Here’s his litany of Gorgon Stare woes in an email he sent:

“The 53rd Wing of the Air Combat Command at Eglin Air Force Base was tasked to test Gorgon Stare in an “operational utility evaluation.”  In a draft of its test report, which I understand is fundamentally unchanged in its final form, the testers –

* found 13 “Category 1” (i.e. serious) deficiencies;

* stated Gorgon Stare is “not operationally effective,” and it is “not operationally suitable.”  That’s a flunk in OT&E terms: it’s both ineffective and unreliable, and recommended that Gorgon Stare not be “fielded” (deployed) to Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

“The more you read, the worse it gets:

* The imagery from Gorgon Stare is frequently marginal to poor, depending on the mode of use.  Specifically, when it is used for “near real time” field or ground station use, the electro-optical (EO) imagery “can find and track [objects as small as] vehicles” but not “dismounts” (people).  For contemporaneous users in the field, the Infrared (IR) imagery is worse: it is “marginally sufficient to track vehicles” and “not sufficient to track dismounts. In general, IR imagery quality is poor, which yields marginal mission capability at night.”

* In fact, Gorgon Stare may be a step backwards.  The multi-camera aspect of the design seems to have created problems. Some of the imagery is “subject to gaps between stitching areas [where the camera images meet], which manifests itself as a large black triangle moving throughout the image. “Contrast differences between the four IR cameras degrade the ability to track targets across the image seams.”  And, “dropped [image] frames from a few seconds to several minutes-[make] it impossible to track moving targets over that period.”

* Beyond the “seams” between images, the image quality is degraded from what users in the field have come to expect: “image quality does not support mission sets commonly used by RVT [remote video terminal] users”.  In plain English, the image quality is worse than that now provided by Predator and Reaper drones without GS.

* There is a serious time delay problem. Transmissions to the ground, at the rate of two frames per second, arrive 12 to 18 seconds late for the ‘subview’ ground station, and it arrives 2 seconds late to the ‘real time’ users in the field.  This “limits,” if not eliminates, the ability to track and prosecute “dynamic” (i.e. moving) targets.  Of course, when the target moves to the edge (“seam”) of a camera frame, this problem becomes worse.

* The better quality imagery that is obtained from the computer pod after flight takes too long to download ‘to conduct timely forensic analysis.’

* There is another serious problem regarding the accuracy of location coordinates: ‘an unpredictable [i.e. random] software error generates a faulty coordinate grid’ rendering location information ‘inaccurate and inconsistent.’ In other words, if Gorgon Stare is ever able to find and identify a target, it might generate a false location, rendering an attempt to attack it ineffective-and hitting an unintended location which may contain innocents or friendly forces. A tester unofficially remarked that means it cannot be used for sensor or weapons cueing, a primary reason for Gorgon Stare’s existence.

* Limited bandwidth is the reason for the slow data receipt; a ‘work around’ was established, but that reduces the quality of images even more.

  • Despite ‘full contractor logistics,’ Gorgon Stare performed poorly on measures such as ‘average failures per sortie; meantime between failures; and troubleshooting time following a failure.’ Overall, one tester commented that it is “about 55 to 65 percent reliable.’

What really makes this noteworthy is that Gorgon Stare is exactly the kind of program that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his acquisition leaders believe can help reshape how the Pentagon buys and develops weapons.

The reactions to the test recommendations are worrying. Wheeler says that Big Safari “claimed that the tests were unfair as they probed performance areas that were beyond the specifications for the system-just as operational testers are supposed to.  Big Safari even protested that Gorgon Stare ‘was designed to operate in a different environment from which is currently envisioned-relatively flat earth with a greater number of vehicles.’  That would clearly exclude Afghanistan. And, therefore, they argue, it should be deployed immediately to Afghanistan!'”

The argument by many technology and Pentagon advocates will be that the system has been fielded rapidly and will get much better with time, as users figure out better how to use it, maintainers figure out how to work with it and the developers improve the technology. That’s all true, but this and other rapidly fielded systems must get even better as the budget crunch is likely to grow worse or they risk being scrapped for poor performance. And, of course, the troops and taxpayers deserve it.