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New technology could bring more accuracy, speed to target acquisition

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 26, 2006) -- At this moment, above the theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, American data sensors of all types are collecting information and intelligence about what is happening on the ground.

What happens to the collected data afterward depends largely on the sensor's specific owner and their mission. It could be reviewed immediately, or it could be stored for later use. What is for sure is that terabytes of information, wherever it comes from, often goes unused -- left on a secure hard drive until it is no longer timely or even relevant to anyone.

The Air Force is now engaged in an experiment to take all that data and make use of it the moment it comes off sensors. During the Northern Edge Exercise this June in Alaska, the Air Force and Pacific Air Forces will test a developmental system that does just that: the Global Net Centric Surveillance and Targeting system.

Data collected from sources such as unmanned aerial vehicles, the E-8C Joint Stars, the RC-135 Rivet Joint, electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar sensors, signals intelligence sensors, and various other data sensors, are all likely candidates to be fed into GNCST.

The GNCST system can take information, near real-time, from a nearly unlimited set of data sensors, and process it into useable information for the warfighter, said Maj. Gen. Gregory H. Power, Air Force Director of Operations and Support Integration.

"With GNCST, a lot of platforms and capabilities will be fusing their data into one single funnel, and GNCST is at the bottom of the funnel," he said. "It takes all that information in, and through algorithms, is able to digest and disseminate very quickly and very accurately, the position of something like a (Surface-to-Air Missile) site."

The system uses a web-based interface. An end user, on a secured computer network, might access the system and ask it to locate any SAMs that appeared in a specific region within the last 45 minutes. The GNCST system would then respond, in as little as a few seconds, with target coordinates for those SAMs.

That type of responsiveness and accuracy would be of great use to pilots, General Power said.

"If we had a sortie that was going to attack a target, GNCST might identify a mobile SAM system that had moved into the area as the aircraft took off," General Power said. "Of course, the pilot would not know about that. But by having GNCST and being able to digest that data -- getting it accurately and fast -- that data would be available for the air operations center to pass to the pilot. This really is a kind of life saving technology that, once fully developed, is really going to give us an edge on the battlefield."

The Air Force processes much of its intelligence information by using manpower. But, humans who process intelligence information cannot work as fast as or process as much data as machines.

"A human being processing the data we are talking about here -- it could take, in some cases days, sometimes even weeks," General Power said. "This machine-to-machine interface we will have with GNCST will allow us to do it in seconds, minutes at most. And the timeliness and accuracy of the information is the value we bring to the warfighter."

The GNCST system was developed primarily to locate SAM sites, but GNCST can be trained to find any number of potential threats, from SCUD missiles to tanks. Complex computer algorithms allow the system to look at nearly any kind of raw sensor data and locate threats. And as the GNCST system develops, those algorithms can be trained to recognize any number of new threats.

"In the future, this target set will grow to eventually include all threats," General Power said. "The database will be a living document, if you will. The list of threat systems will continuously be changing; as new systems are developed they too will be added to the database."

The GNCST system could even find "non-threat systems," General Power said.

One concern with allowing a computer to pick a target is the fear of removing the "human element" from the kill chain. In the Air Force command and control community, "kill chain" refers to the series of events leading from identification of a potential target to the ultimate destruction or "kill" of that target. The target could be a building, a cave, a convoy or a communications tower. While the kill chain can be shortened through the use of computers, at the end, there is always a human element that makes the final decision to employ force, General Power said. That will not be eliminated with implementation of GNCST.

"Just like in any execution decision, there will be rules of engagement on scenarios," he said. "Once the concept of operations is developed, there will be certain checks and balances in it. The final element is the executing human being -- the pilot on the sortie -- at the end of the kill chain that will have the final say on if they drop on the target."

Development of the GNCST system, called "Gun Coast" by those involved with the project, is spearheaded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Partners in the project include the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. and the United States Strategic Command.

While the system is only in development now, General Power said he hopes the Air Force signs on for the system. The system's performance at Northern Edge will figure into the Air Force's decision to become more involved in the technology.

"This technology has a lot of promise, and we want to see it developed," General Power said. "We are pretty optimistic that it will succeed."

"GNCST will bring intelligence information with more accuracy in a much shorter time period than currently possible," he added. "It means we can find and accurately locate bad guys in a much shorter period of time, and hopefully prevent them from causing harm to friendly forces -- in other words saving friendly lives."