At this moment, above Iraq and Afghanistan, American data sensors are collecting
information and intelligence about what is happening on the ground.
What happens to the data depends largely on a sensor's owner and its mission.
The data could be reviewed immediately, or it could be stored for later use.
What is for sure is that terabytes of information, wherever they come from,
often go unused -- left on a secure hard drive until they are no longer relevant
The Air Force is now engaged in an experiment to take 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 will test a system that does just that: the Global Net
Centric Surveillance and Targeting, or GNCST, system.
Data 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 others are all likely candidates to be fed into
Called "Gun Coast" by those involved with the project, the system can take near
real-time information 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 on a secured computer network. An end user
might access the system and ask it to locate surface-to-air missiles 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
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," he said. "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 or process
as much data as the 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 it can be
modified 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 will be adjusted to recognize any 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
While the kill chain can be shortened through the use of computers, at the end,
there is always a human who 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 who will have
the final say on if they drop on the target."
Development of the GNCST system 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. Its 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."
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