As the military scrambles to deal with a U.S. spy drone lost in Iran, it was revealed that the U.S. Air Force has bought a cutting edge, jet-powered stealth drone -- and plans its immediate deployment in Afghanistan.
But the brand new drone -- an armed model from General Atomics designed for strike as well as reconnaissance -- was ordered months ago, well before the crash of the stealthy Lockheed-made RQ-170 Sentinel that remains in Iran, the USAF said in a statement to aviation website FlightGlobal.
"This aircraft will be used as a test asset and will provide a significantly increased weapons and sensors payload capacity on an aircraft that will be able to fly to targets much more rapidly than the MQ-9 [Reaper] UAS," the USAF said.
Developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Avenger -- also known as the Predator C -- is the upgraded successor to the Predator and Reaper drones with significantly greater firepower, speed and sensor capabilities.
It also has an internal weapons bay and is capable of carrying 2,000-pound missiles.
Despite being labeled a test aircraft, the order for the Avenger came in response to an urgent request made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in early 2011. The Avenger was the only aircraft that met the Defense Department's needs on such short notice, the Air Force Times reported, citing a heavily redacted document posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website.
Wired's Danger Room blog speculates that the drone may be used not in Afghanistan but for further missions in Iran, given its stealth capabilities and large weapons payload.
“The Avenger reportedly carries a ground-mapping radar and the same ultra-sophisticated cameras as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, making it a perfect candidate for quietly snooping above, say, suspected nuclear facilities or terrorist camps guarded by air-defense radars and missiles,” wrote Danger Room’s David Axe.
All of which doesn’t seem too far-fetched: Panetta recently told Fox News in an exclusive interview that the stealth drone campaign along the Iran-Afghanistan border will “absolutely” continue despite the loss of a valuable and sophisticated drone in Iran.
The mysterious loss of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone revealed not only that the U.S. was spying on Iran, but also that the program was being run from Shindad Air Base in western Afghanistan.
"Those operations have to be protected in order to do the job and the mission that they're involved with," Panetta told Fox News.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at a press conference Wednesday morning that he was unaware of the Sentinel drone malfunction until informed by Iran.
"Afghanistan was not aware the drone had gone down or malfunctioned in Iran ... the government of Iran has sent a note to us on that," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been quietly pushing to sell armed drones to key allies, but it has run into resistance from U.S. lawmakers concerned about the proliferation of technology and know-how.
Administration officials recently began informal consultations with lawmakers about prospective sales of armed drones and weapons systems to NATO members Italy and Turkey, while several U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf have been pressing Washington to authorize drone sales, officials said.