Thursday, December 10, 2009

AVWK: Stealthy "Beast of Kandahar" UAV Has Links To Previous Projects

Aviation Week & Space Technology

By David A. Fulghum

The U.S. Air Force’s recently revealed, stealthy, all-jet RQ-170 remotely piloted aircraft that has flown in Afghanistan has linkages to earlier designs from Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, including the stealthy DarkStar and Polecat UAVs.

The RQ-170 is a tailless flying wing whose upper surfaces have conformal sensor and/or communications pods faired into each side outboard of the centerline fuselage (Aerospace DAILY, Dec. 7).

“DarkStar didn’t die when Lockheed Martin [retired the airframe for being too small and short-ranged],” says a now-retired company executive. “It just got classified.”

The revelation of the RQ-170 comes as the Air Force’s top intelligence officer calls the need for a larger, longer-range strike-reconnaissance aircraft his number one priority.

Both events have their origins in experimental and prototype unmanned aircraft developed as a result of the internment of a U.S. Navy EP-3E electronic surveillance aircraft on April Fools’ Day 2001.

Following the landing of that damaged aircraft in China, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called a classified, all-day session of those with responsibilities for “Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations.” They discussed how to avoid future embarrassing and damaging losses of classified equipment, documents or aircrews without losing the ability to monitor the military forces and capabilities of important countries like China. Their leading option was to start a new, stealthy, unmanned reconnaissance program that would field 12-24 aircraft. Air Combat Command, then led by Gen. John Jumper, wanted a very low-observable, high-altitude UAV that could penetrate air defense, fly 1,000 nautical miles to a target, loiter for eight hours and return to base.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a UAV described as a derivative of DarkStar was being prepared and was said by several officials to have been used operationally in prototype form. “It’s the same concept as DarkStar, it’s stealthy, and it uses the same apertures and data links,” said an Air Force official at the time. “Only it’s bigger,” said a Navy official. “It’s still far from a production aircraft, but the Air Force wanted to go ahead and get it out there.” The classified UAV’s operation caused consternation among U-2 pilots who noticed high-flying aircraft operating within several miles of their routes over Iraq. Flights of the mysterious aircraft were not coordinated with those of other manned and unmanned surveillance units.

There is great interest in how the U.S. now leverages its black and white world UAVs and remotely piloted aircraft to maintain a watch over the vast and rugged areas of Afghanistan with a relatively small NATO force. The revitalized conflict in Afghanistan will be largely a ground war with airpower serving as flying artillery, rapid off-road transport and as a wide-ranging reconnaissance force.

A pivotal test will come in the next 18 months as about 150,000 U.S. and allied troops try to break the offensive capabilities of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, with new technologies being brought into play. The rest will involve the Air Force’s investment in advanced technologies.

“We cannot move into a future without a platform that allows [us] to project power long distances and to meet advanced threats in a fashion that gives us an advantage that no other nation has,” says Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “We can’t walk away from that capability.”

For example, surveillance aircraft can see a lot more, farther and better with technologies like long wave infrared if the platform can operate at 50,000 feet or higher. In comparison, the RC-135S Cobra Ball, RC-135W Rivet Joint and E-8C Joint Stars manned surveillance aircraft are all limited to an altitude of less than 30,000 feet — and sometimes well under.


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