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Dec. 16, 2009—Around April or May, the Air Force expects to field the first of its new Gorgon Stare wide-area surveillance pods on its MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft that patrol the skies over Afghanistan looking for Taliban insurgents on the ground.

The pods' introduction will have a dramatic impact on the overall capacity of the Air Force to provide overhead imagery in support of US and coalition ground forces there, Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Staff's intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance director, told defense reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

With the pod, the same MQ-9 aircraft that today each provide one streaming video feed will each be able to deliver 10 simultaneous feeds of different items within their scope of view, explained Deptula.

Essentially, independent of an increase in overall platform numbers, the Air Force is still "vastly increasing the output" of ISR support with the Gorgon Stare pods, he said.

And, this capability increase with the pods will be possible long before the equivalent amount of coverage could be had by fielding additional ISR platforms, he said.

Deptula contends that this development will help break the mold of judging the sufficiency of overhead ISR support by using an input measure that counts solely the platforms and the combat air patrols that they provide. Instead, it focuses on what he said he considers a better way to gauge the support—the capability of each platform, an output measure.

"You have effectively increased the CAPs by 10 by introducing one pod set," said Deptula, in making that point.

After the first set of three pods in spring 2010, three more Gorgon Stare pod sets are expected to enter the fray in Afghanistan around September or October, said Deptula. The latter will be increment II pods, capable of 30 simultaneous imagery streams, he said.

Three more increment II pod sets will follow in 2011. After that, new Gorgon Stare pods entering the inventory will provide 65 simultaneous images, said Deptula.

Deptula also left no doubt that the Air Force does indeed plan to keep increasing the total number of overhead ISR platforms in Southwest Asia, even with the time and energy being spent increasing the capability of the existing platforms as with Gorgon Stare.

For example, the service expects to introduce the first MC-12W Project Liberty Aircraft into Afghanistan "shortly," he said. Already six of them operate in Iraq out of Joint Base Balad, providing overhead streaming video images and signals intelligence to ground troops at tactical levels.

A total of 24 MC-12Ws is slated to go to Afghanistan by late summer 2010, according to Deptula's spokeswoman, Maj. Cristin Marposon.

Another aspect of getting the most ISR bang for the buck is ensuring that the forces on the ground are familiar with what the overhead systems offer, said Deptula.

To that end, the Air Force has embedded ISR liaison officers with the Army at the brigade level. That presence is "very important" because the liaison officers help to tailor the best ISR support for the ground units' mission needs, as opposed to what the ground units think they might need, he said. (In fact, he said he'd favor introducing airmen in these roles all the way down to the Army company level if there were enough airmen available.)

For example, in some circles, the MQ-1 Predator RPA has become synonymous with overhead ISR support, kind of like some people associate the name Kleenex with all forms of facial tissue, said Deptula.

"You might not need a Predator," in all cases, he said. He continued, "You might just need a Raven if all you are interested in is what's on the other side of a hill. So part of this is an education process."

Despite the advent of capable RPAs for intelligence gathering, manned platforms—like the MC-12W—still offer advantages, said Deptula.

"If you have a person in the cockpit, they can react to on-scene information in a way that today remotely piloted aircraft simply cannot do," he said. He added, "It enhances stability in the context that you know somebody is in control on-scene."

(For more from Deptula, read Afghanistan and ISR.)