Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Beast of Kandahar, Redux

Almost seven months ago, we reprinted a picture of a stealthy UAV, then operating from an allied airbase in Afghanistan. Nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar," the drone bore an uncanny resemblance to the "Polecat" UAV, an aircraft developed by Lockheed's famous Skunk Works Division.

While the Polecat program was supposedly terminated in 2006 (after the crash of a prototype), the Kandahar sighting suggested that the project was alive and well. The UAV's presence in Afghanistan also raised questions about its possible mission. As we noted at the time, there is little need for a stealthy, high-endurance drone in Afghanistan or Iraq, where enemy air defenses are virtually non-existent.

On the other hand, a Polecat-type platform would be extremely useful in monitoring nuclear sites and missile programs in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. Both the Pentagon and Lockheed have remained mum about the UAV, and interest in the Kandahar sighting eventually subsided.

Until now, that is. A blog linked to a left-wing French publication has a better picture of "The Beast," offering hints about the aircraft and its capabilities. The report was subsequently picked up by FlightGlobal and Aviation Week, renewing speculation about the UAV and its aerial pedigree. Aviation Week's Bill Sweetman believes the drone is definitely a Skunk Works project, possibly tracing its roots to the Desert Prowler program, which began before 9-11.

Is the Beast of Kandahar a derivative of the Desert Prowler? (Secret Defense photo)

As Mr. Sweetman explains:

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. More background here, 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.

The date and location of the latest photo have not been revealed, but most experts believe it was taken during a deployment to Afghanistan. If Bill Sweetman's sources are correct, the "Prowler"--for lack of a better designation--has been operating in the region for more than two years, and with frequent flights over high-value targets in Afghanistan--and elsewhere.

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