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  • More Details on RQ-170 Crash and Implications of Iran's Recovery
    Posted by David A. Fulghum 5:57 PM on Dec 09, 2011

    I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can that were generated by the previous UAV crash blog post.

    Washington has been conducting intelligence-gathering over-flights with both stealthy and non-stealthy unmanned aircraft to monitor Tehran’s military developments.

    That a Sentinel was involved is important because the Lockheed Martin-built flying wing currently carries a full-motion video payload. FMV is the key to activity-based, intelligence analysis, the same discipline that revealed Osama bin Laden's hiding place. Both the CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) see activity-based intelligence as the path to better monitoring of areas of concern, and they are busy expanding that capability.

    Early on, officials said the crashed aircraft was possibly the Lockheed Martin Sentinel. That initial hesitation by the U.S. to confirm the downed unmanned aircraft as an RQ-170 indicates there are other aircraft monitoring Iran as well. Moreover, the intelligence community indicated that missile testing in Eastern Iran was at least one of the targets of interest for Sentinel when it carried an earlier electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) payload.

    The Pentagon doesn’t seem worried.

    “The Iranians don’t have the ability to reverse engineer it, and there was no fancy [ISR] technology on board,” says a veteran intelligence specialist with insight into the program. “There could be a bit of a problem if the Russians or Chinese get the [airframe].”

    Video released by the Iranian government shows the airframe intact, but with the landing gear and bottom of the Sentinel hidden. Specialists say the aircraft was not shot down because there is no blast or fire damage. The lack of crash damage would indicate use of the standard UAV flight-termination procedure after an airborne mishap of going into a flat spin. The video also shows an F-117 type grill work over the engine intake to avoid radar reflections from moving parts on the face of the engine. A Lockheed Martin stealth specialist contends that it’s still an acceptable idea if the size of the aircraft is constrained and it has “big, fat, round leading edges” to further attenuate RF reflections.

    Russian missile developers explained to Aviation Week the problem they had using the remains of a downed U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter to upgrade the stealth-detection capability of their next-generation air defenses. Because only sections of the F-117 survived intact, "we haven't been able to model the entire [low-observable bomber]," a Russian engineer conceded. "It's not the same as testing against an undamaged F-117. You provide us with a complete stealth aircraft and then we'll tell you how effective we are."

    Therefore, having a virtually intact aircraft should present fewer problems for reverse engineering. However, it is a lengthy process and often means replicating a design that is already several years and at least a generation of technology behind.

    The RQ-170, equipped with a full-motion video sensor, was a key element in the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan. Perhaps the most important detail that emerged from the raid was how much its planning relied on activity-based intelligence. Bin Laden was never seen, but the coming and going of important people revealed that he was there. Much of the critical information was gathered by the FMV sensor system, and the data were analyzed by the NGA. The need for even more sophisticated activity-based intelligence is being emphatically touted by the NGA.

    "We're moving into more of an anticipatory [style of operations]," a senior agency official says. "We look at key intelligence questions and bring as many pieces of information together as we can by using multi-intelligence fusion and non-traditional sources." The bin Laden residence was identified by "pattern-of-life activity and [NGA] worked with the assault team to look at the best way to get there," the official says. Information developed from the data included flight path and acoustics modeling, line-of-sight analysis, landing-zone surveys and calculating the heights of walls, as well as the locations of entryways, windows and doors.

    The single-channel, FMV capability is being multiplied up to 65 times in new systems being packaged for carriage by unmanned aircraft and airships. An Air Force version of the capability is Gorgon Stare. An Army system is called Argus-IS. ISR specialists contend that the loss in Iran would have been far more critical if one of the multi-channel systems had fallen in to Iran’s possession and made its way to China or Russia, where the capability can be reverse-engineered.

    Gorgon Stare, developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. and the Air Force’s Big Safari program, has been flying over Afghanistan on MQ-9 Reapers since December 2010. The current payload is in two pods. One carries a sensor ball produced by subcontractor ITT Defense. The ball contains five EO cameras for daytime and four IR cameras for nighttime ISR, positioned at different angles for maximum ground coverage. The pod also houses a computer processor. Images from the five EO cameras are stitched together by the computer to create an 80-megapixel image. The four IR cameras combined shoot the equivalent of two 32-megapixel frames/sec. The second Gorgon Stare pod contains a computer to process and store images, data-link modem, two pairs of antennas for the Common Data Link and Tactical Common Data Link.

    BAE Systems' multi-channel system is being automated for monitoring by significantly fewer intelligence analysts than the current system of FMV exploitation. The wide-area persistent surveillance sensor, called the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (Argus-IS), provides that multi-channel functionality from a single sensor operating on a single platform.

    The Pentagon, the U.S. Army and NGA want to accelerate use of fused data with a package that can be used on platforms that stay aloft for days or weeks.

    Argus-IS combines wide-area coverage (40 sq. km.) with impressive detail (15-cm.-resolution ground sample distance per pixel). Moreover, the imagery resolution allows tracking of moving vehicles and dismounted individuals.

    All of the data is recorded all the time. An analyst can select any number of video windows focused anywhere around the town. He also could review what happened at the same place an hour or a day or a week before. If he missed something, he can find it. Already there are some automated functions to reduce the analysts' workload, such as tracking vehicles. More are under development.

    "We're trying to find and characterize activity, document the critical patterns of life, discover the networks and recognize the anomalies within this group so you can find that needle in the haystack," says Wes Green, program director of BAE Systems' global analysis business.

    Tags: ISR, stealth, RQ-170, ar99, unmanned

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