Afghanistan tests limits of unmanned sensors

More patrols, better technologies needed in sparsely populated country

The rural nature of Afghanistan is creating a huge demand for intelligence information and also serving as a proving ground to test new sensors designed to detect enemy threats and locations, reports David Fulghum at Aviation Week.

Patrolling the vast, mountainous country requires regular patrols by unmanned aircraft and a new breed of sensors.

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“From the ISR perspective, the need is just for more," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Tom Andersen, Air Combat Command’s director of requirements, told Aviation Week. "We talk about wide-area surveillance, hyper-spectral and [ground moving target indicator]. If you have a cafeteria plan [for a variety of sensors and capabilities] the challenge is what capability do you bed down first.”

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in Afghanistan require substantial personnel support, Andersen said.

“The first thing I will tell you is that there is nothing unmanned about unmanned,” he said. “We have just under 600 pilots right now flying [UAVs]. We’re on target for 65 unmanned combat air patrols. That means we will more than double the number of pilots to 1,400. It is the most man-power intensive part of our business."

Andersen said he recently spent a week with Air Force personnel at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., who operate the UAVs remotely. During that visit, he was able to see firsthand how personnel operate the MQ-9 Reaper weapons system.

“The platform is just a truck with a huge network behind it. What you get with the RPA is a connection to the network. For every aircraft flying down range, there is a [support] army back home.”

Air Force officials are trying to prioritize the UAVs and the sensors they use, he said. One of the most promising new sensors is the Gorgon Stare, which will go live in late summer.

“It probably will increase the MQ-9’s surveillance capacity by something like 10-fold,” he said. We’re wrestling with the concept of operations. We’re very focused on getting it through test and evaluation and into the field.”

Other advanced technologies that will be used include hyper-spectral sensors that help locate  improvised explosive devices by detecting changes in terrain or other circumstances of a suspicious nature.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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