Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bill Sweetman: Beast Of Kandahar Revealed/Desert Prowler

A photograph of the Beast of Kandahar, the classified stealth UAV first reported in April, has emerged on a blog linked to left-wing French newspaper Liberation.

The photo confirms that the previous artists' impressions were largely accurate. The jet has long, slender outer wings, spanning as much as 80 feet, mated to a stouter, deeper centerbody with a pointed nose. One important detail: the overwing fairings are not B-2-like inlets, but cover some kind of equipment - satcoms on one side, perhaps, and a sensor on the other.

The most likely provenance of the airframe is Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, and it is very likely to be associated with the Desert Prowler program - unearthed by historian Peter Merlin and "patchologist" Trevor Paglen. But it should be noted that Dave Fulghum reported in June 2001 on a plan to acquire 12-24 high altitude, stealthy UAVs. The effort had gathered pace after a US EP-3 SIGINT aircraft was forced to land in China in April, and went further underground after 9/11. It's believed that the first of a small batch of aircraft flew in late 2005 and were operational in Afghanistan in 2007 (where this photo was probably taken.)

Despite superficial similarity the Desert Prowler is not an immediate relative of the Polecat technology demonstrator tested in 2006. The latter incorporated advanced aerodynamic and structural features for a future long-range, very high-altitude UAV, while Desert Prowler is more conservative.

Perhaps the biggest mystery, though, is what the birds were doing in Kandahar. Why use a stealth aircraft against an adversary that doesn't have radar? And if it was part of some Secret Squirrel operation against the Taliban, what in the blue blazes was it doing outdoors in daylight?


Editors note: My guess is that it most likely has significant SIGINT & COMINT capabilities, helpful in ferreting out Taliban using two-way radios to coordinate their attacks, not to mention if UBL should get lonely and want to reach out and touch someone (on his cell or sat phone) it wouldn't hurt to have this bird up there listening in.

And since it most likely can "listen in" it wouldn't do much political good for the Pakistanis to know it's up there, especially to those known to be sympathetic to the Taliban and resentful of a U.S. military presence.

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