|U.S. Air Force Confirms 'Beast of Kandahar' Secret Stealth Drone Plane
The U.S. Air Force has acknowledged a new, unmanned drone plane with a sleek, stealth design that will be deployed for military reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
The U.S. Air Force has acknowledged that it is developing and testing a new, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — a drone with a sleek, stealth design that will be deployed for military reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
Aeronautics fans have nicknamed the aircraft "The Beast of Kandahar," as it was apparently spotted over the skies of Afghanistan. Industry observers speculate it is sophisticated enough to gather aerial intelligence over Iran without detection, perhaps keeping track of the Islamic Republic's emerging nuclear program.
"The RQ-170 Sentinel, a low observable UAV, was built by Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs," Major Cristin L. Marposon, a public affairs officer for the USAF at the Pentagon, told FoxNews.com.
"The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates' request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to the combatant commanders, as well as Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz's vision for an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft," Marposon said.
History and Capabilities
Private sector observers are very keen on the aircraft's capabilities. Gene Robinson, a founder of RP Flight Systems, which develops such planes for the civilian market, said the new Air Force drone has an interesting history.
The USAF's new plane is the RQ-170 from Lockheed-Martin, "but it started out life as the Boeing X49, before it was de-funded," Robinson told FoxNews.com.
"With the current political climate — UAV's being called 'death robots' — it is to be set up as a troop support sensor platform. This UAV uses a lot of the stealth technology that has been developed as of late. Low radar signature, low noise signature, etc."
As a surveillance and support aircraft, the drone may be more effective than the Predator aircraft, which launch "Hellfire" missiles at terrorist targets overseas. It could reduce collateral damage, with more precise enemy targeting information.
"It's important to present a stealthier, harder to hit profile," said Robinson. Though the design's exact details aren't public, it is likely that the new drone has no metal parts, save for its engine, enabling it to fly in areas thick with radar without being picked up, he theorized.
For Surveillance, or for Attack?
Another source notes that the unmanned aircraft was tested in Nevada, where the F-117 stealth aircraft also debuted. "The military has several flight test ranges it can fly from," Jamey D. Jacob, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University, told FoxNews.com. Jacob noted that the vendor, Lockheed-Martin, also developed the F-117 and the F-22.
"Since it carries the 'R' designation it doesn't carry weapons, it's surveillance only," Jacob said. It may still have that capability, however.
"It's roughly the same size — span, tip-to-tip — as the Predator so it will have roughly similar payload capability, 500-1,000 lbs of surveillance equipment. However, it is shaped like the B-2 stealth bomber. If you look at the platform, it is very close to the B-2 design."
What's more, Dr. Jacob notes, the tail-less, flying wing design lends to this stealth capability, but unmanned aircraft may also have special paint — or "secret sauce" — and composite materials that provide additional stealth.
"It's rumored to carry its IR pods in the wing's leading edge so this keeps its shape smooth," Jacob said. "It is jet-powered -- probably twin turbojet or low bypass ratio turbofan engines -- so it'll be faster and more maneuverable than a comparable Predator vehicle and have the ability to fly higher, above the point where contrails typically form. This will help mask it's presence above a target."
Experts like Jacob do not think the U.S. needs this kind of stealth technology to prevail in Afghanistan, even though the aircraft has apparently flown there, and is known as "The Beast of Kandahar."
"Why does the U.S. need to have a super secret stealth UAV in Afghanistan?" he asked. "The Taliban and Al Qaeda don't have radar seeking missiles we know of, so Predators and Global Hawks should work fine. This may mean then that Afghanistan is being used as a base of operations to fly covert surveillance missions over Iran, who do have radar based ground-to-air missiles."
Dr. Jacob speculates that the Air Force may also be flying covert missions over Pakistan to help root out al Qaeda operations or even Usama bin Laden. "We don't know what the range is, but it should easily be able to cover most of Iran and Pakistan based out of Kandahar."
This is the first UAV of its type in operation, though Boeing and Northrop-Grumman are developing similar designs. "The fact that it is in the field already is telling in my opinion," Jacob says.
Drone aircraft in a stepped-up war in Afghanistan and Pakistan
|The Christian Science Monitor
It will be months before the 30,000 new troops will have gone to war in Afghanistan. But President Obama already has increased attacks by pilotless Predator drone aircraft against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.
It will take some time for 30,000 more US troops to deploy to Afghanistan, as called for by President Obama’s new Afghan strategy. Already in operation, however, may be another part of the plan: an increase in covert strikes against militant targets by missiles fired from unmanned Predator drones.
Evidence of this surfaced Tuesday, with reports that the US launched a drone attack in northwest Pakistan that may have killed a key member of Al Qaeda.
“Nothing has been definitively confirmed, but it’s possible that a senior Al Qaeda figure has died,” a US official told the Reuters news service.
The US government has not officially talked about the strike, nor is it likely to. The drone program is a covert effort run by the CIA. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Ayman al-Zawahiri was the likely target, however, according to wire service reports.
The Predator can loiter over a target for hours
The RQ-1 Predator drone is the primary unmanned aerial vehicle used for offensive operations in Afghanistan and the adjoining Pakistani tribal areas. Its endurance is such that it can fly 400 nautical miles to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, then return.
US generals testifying before Congress in recent weeks about the new Afghanistan strategy declined to discuss the issue of missile strikes in public. Again, the program is supposed to be classified. But they freely discussed their appreciation for the intelligence and reconnaissance-gathering abilities of UAVs, which are the flip side of the technology’s abilities.
“These programs are expensive, but they are extraordinarily effective and extraordinarily value-added,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 8.
According to a recent think-tank report, armed drone strikes have dramatically increased under Mr. Obama – even before his recent decision to bulk up US forces there.
There were 43 such attacks between January and October 2009, according to a New America Foundation report. The report draws on what it deems to be credible local and national media stories about the attacks. That compares with a total of 34 in all of 2008, President Bush’s last full year in office.
Debate over civilian casualties
Since 2006, drone-launched missiles have killed between 750 and 1,000 people in Pakistan, according to the New American report. Of these, about 20 people were leaders of Al Qaeda, Taliban, and associated groups. Overall, about 66 to 68 percent of the people killed were militants, and between 31 and 33 percent were civilians, according to the report.
"It is not possible to differentiate precisely between militant and civilian casualties because the militants live among the population and don’t wear uniforms,” write Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, New America Foundation research fellows, in the study. US officials dispute the assertion that up to 30 percent of those killed by the unmanned aerial vehicle attacks are civilians.
At a recent appearance at the American Veterans Center’s annual conference, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command, said he did not believe civilian casualties in the region have increased.
“With respect to Afghanistan, the loss of innocent civilian life has been dramatically reduced,” said General Petraeus, in response to a question about the utility of the Predator attacks.
Winning over the "human terrain"
The main goal of a counterinsurgency operation is to win over the human terrain – the local population, said Petraeus. The US recognizes that would not be possible if large numbers of civilians are killed in errant missile strikes. At the same time, the US wants to make use of its best weapons, said Petraeus.
“So all of that … argues against the idea that you would deny yourself those very effective platforms, particularly when it comes to the most senior leaders of organizations that are trying to carry out attacks in our homeland,” said the Central Command chief.