Predator gains put focus on data overload

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

By 2015, U.S. Central Command could have 65 modern versions of the Predator unmanned aircraft simultaneously flying combat patrols over Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They would be able to provide coverage of about 650 ground targets through imagery, electronic-message interception or infrared cameras.

That prospect -- based on data from the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review and from a presentation by Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- underpins concerns relayed to Congress recently about the rate of information collected by Predators under Central Command control. That flow not only exceeds capabilities to interpret and exploit the data, the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers, but probably soon will exceed the bandwidth available to carry it to ground stations.

"For example, according to U.S. Central Command officials, the command exploits less than one-half of the electronic-signal intercepts collected from the Predator," Davi M. D'Agostino, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on air and land forces last week. She explained that it takes time to find native speakers of the collected languages, train them and get them cleared by the National Security Agency, a process that requires "rigorous background examinations."

Information collected by wide-area sensors is saved on computer disks and flown back to the United States for review and dissemination, D'Agostino said, "because current networks in the theater of operations cannot handle the large amount of data."

Another problem made worse by the increased use of unmanned intelligence collectors is the old bugaboo of interservice rivalry.

In the past, the GAO voiced criticism that the military branches "were pursuing service-unique subsystems, sensors, communications equipment, and weapons and ground control stations." Last week, D'Agostino cited another example: the failure by the services to heed a 2008 Defense Department directive to develop common electronic systems so they can share their information.

She reported that the Navy and the Air Force have plans to share their information this year, starting with data from their separate versions of the Global Hawk unmanned vehicle. However, the Army's common sharing system for collections by its unique systems, such as Shadow and its version of the Predator, is not expected to be available to others until 2016. And the Marines have not established a completion date for their sharing system, she added.

One practical result on the battlefield is that the full-motion videos gathered daily by the Army cannot be automatically shared with the Air Force. Another problem is that areas of the battlefield have to be restricted for operations or the separate systems will conflict with each other. In Baghdad, according to one official, there were at one time 15 different restricted-operation areas.

The Army vs. Air Force debate was recorded in last month's National Defense magazine, with Deptula quoted as saying that all extended-range unmanned aircraft should be placed under the authority of joint regional commanders such as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in Afghanistan. But Army officers strongly disagreed, saying that their soon-to-be-deployed extended-range unmanned vehicles must remain under control of Army brigade commanders and operated by controllers deployed with troops on the ground.

But it is also the future of unmanned aircraft that concerns many Air Force officers, including Deptula. In his presentation, he questioned whether there is "excessive exuberance" for these weapons systems. He described the MQ-9 version of the Predator, which has been given a sensor pod called Gorgon Stare Increment 1. It permits coverage of as many as 10 targets, where the earlier Predator covered just one. Two years from now, Increment 2 will be able to relay more than 50 images from 10 or 12 on-board sensors.

Deptula also described the next-generation Predator, the MQ-X, which would be able to carry a 5,000-pound payload, including sensors and weapons, such as air-to-air missiles for defense.

Although these aircraft have "enormous capability and concept advantages," they "are not a panacea for air warfare nor replacement for manned aviation," Deptula says. Their ability to operate in Afghanistan and Iraq is based primarily on total control of the airspace. Their "vulnerability . . . in contested or denied airspace is significant," he added.

One answer may be the RQ170, a classified, stealth version of today's Predator that is being developed by Lockheed Martin at its "skunk works." The Air Force in December acknowledged the existence of the RQ170 Sentinel as "a low observable unmanned aircraft system" under development and testing. A version was first seen at Kandahar air base in Afghanistan in 2007.

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