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.