Monday, December 14, 2009

AVWK: Details emerging on Beast Of Kandahar/RQ170 Sentinel.

Illustration by Gregory Lewis Aviation Week & Space Technology

Article by David A. Fulghum and Bill Sweetman

The U.S. has been flying a classified, stealthy, remotely piloted aircraft in Afghanistan. That single fact reveals the continued development of low-observable UAVs, hidden aspects of the surveillance buildup in Afghanistan, the footprint of an active “black aircraft world” that stretches to Southwest Asia, and links into the Pentagon’s next-generation recce bomber.

The mystery aircraft—once referred to as the Beast of Kandahar and now identified by the U.S. Air Force as a Lockheed Martin Skunk Works RQ-170 Sentinel—flew from Kandahar’s airport, where it was photographed at least twice in 2007. It shared a hangar with Predator and Reaper UAVs being used in combat operations. On Dec. 4, three days after declassification was requested, Aviation Week revealed the program on its web site. Like Predator and Reaper, the Sentinel is remotely piloted by aircrews—in this case the 30th Reconnaissance Sqdn. (RS) at Tonopah Test Range Airport in the northwest corner of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

The confirmation came the same week as the Air Force’s top intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) officer called for a new, stealth, jet-powered strike-reconnaissance aircraft that can meet the requirements of both irregular and conventional conflicts and strategic, peacetime information-gathering.

The demands of fighting an irregular war do not change the critical operational need for a stealthier, strategic-range, higher-payload, strike-reconnaissance aircraft, says Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, deputy chief of staff for ISR.

The battle will be to balance the way the military wants to fight in Afghanistan now against how it wants to fight elsewhere in the future. Air Force officials want to keep those two needs from becoming widely divergent points in geography, technology and operational techniques. For the next 18 months, about 150,000 U.S. and allied troops will try to break the offensive capabilities of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghan istan, and new technologies will be brought into play.

“Don’t get enamored with current conditions,” Deptula cautions. “We don’t know what the future will bring.” While operations in Afghanistan will be “more complex than ever,” the future is “not only going to be about irregular warfare.”

Beyond 2011, the Air Force’s first priority and the destination of the next dollar to be spent “if I were king for a day,” Deptula says, “would be for long-range [reconnaissance and] precision strike. That’s the number-one need.

“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,” he notes. “We can’t walk away from that capability.”

A next-generation design would be equally important as a stealthy ISR platform to greatly extend—through speed, endurance and stealth—the capability produced by putting electro-optical and infrared sensor packets on the B-1 and B-52 bombers for precise attacks on fleeting targets in Southwest Asia.

Surveillance aircraft can see a lot more (farther and better) with long-wave infrared if the platform can operate at 50,000 ft. or higher. The RC-135S Cobra Ball, RC-135W Rivet Joint and E-8C Joint Stars are all limited to flying lower than 30,000 ft. Moreover, the multispectral technology to examine the chemical content of rocket plumes has been miniaturized to fit easily on a much smaller aircraft. Other sensors of interest are electronically scanned array radars, low-probability-of-intercept synthetic aperture radars and signals intelligence.



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