The Strange Case of the Black Unmanned Aircraft at Kandahar


X-47B UCAS_mission concept X-47B UCAS_Mission Concept
Artist – Northrup Grumman

Mysterious Unmanned Aerial Aircraft at Kandahar

Reports are coming out of Afghanistan this spring about sightings of a large reconnaissance aircraft unlike any previously known to the military aviation industry. Rumor has it that this aircraft has also been seen by U-2 pilots flying high altitude reconnaissance missions over Iraq. With remote, Taliban controlled areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan inaccessible to ‘boots on the ground’ intelligence, the United States and NATO rely heavily upon aerial reconnaissance using (U)nmanned (A)erial) ((V)ehicles . When aircraft designation includes (C)ombat then it is weaponized, can release bombs and is not restricted to surveillance. UAVs are very different than predator drones, whose sole mission is to take out a target.

B(road) A(rea) M(aritime) S(urveillance)! conceptPhoto:
B(road) A(rea) M(aritime) S(urveillance) !concept
Artist – Northrup Grumman

Sources at Janes Information Group, publishers of the world renowned “All the World’s Aircraft” and “Defense Weekly”, released a short report on 15 April 2009 about a mysterious UAV that has been seen in Afghanistan early in 2009. Experienced military personnel at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan said the aircraft was unlike any known to them. Immediately after landing, it was moved into hangers used for the MQ-1 Predator drone and MQ-9 Reaper which fly frequent missions throughout the country. One source talking to Janes reported that NATO personnel photographed the aircraft, and were then detained by a security team who destroyed their photographs. Janes believes other photos exist but there are no publicly available copies at this time.

X-43B HST flight concept – NASAPhoto:
X-43B HST flight concept 1 – NASA
Artist – Media Fusion / NASA

Granted stealth is not a priority in Iraq or Afghanistan, because there is no enemy air force, but it is hard to imagine a cutting edge UCAV program setting stealth aside. Any UCAV could be deployed in future situations where the enemy might have retaliatory capacity.

Why such an UCAS would be at Kandahar Air Base is puzzling because this facility is not highly secure and not appropriate as an airfield from which to launch clandestine surveillance missions at night. Perhaps this aircraft had mechanical trouble and was forced to land at Kandahar which was not its destination or home base.

X-43B HST flight concept – NASAPhoto:
X-43B HST flight concept 2 – NASA
Artist – Media Fusion / NASA

The Players

Programs to develop the next generation Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle have been confirmed by the USAF, USN, and DARMA without their supplying any details. The research to produce such aircraft always incorporates cutting edge technology and possible strategic breakthroughs. Such programs must be ‘Black’, publicly denied and inaccessible to new media. Also needing no confirmation is the strategic value of reducing aircraft radar cross section and incorporating stealth technology to the maximum extent possible.

Let’s role play Sherlock Holmes. Can we shortlist possible candidates for the mysterious UAV seen in Afghanistan from planes known to exist, however sparse the details might be as to their precise configuration and mission?

X-43B HST flight conceptX-43B flight concept ADP 2 – Lockheed Martin
Artist – Lockheed Martin

Only a handful of companies have the expertise to develop advanced UCAV, and only three are relevant to this detective challenge. But first we must mention DARPA, an agency of the US Department of Defense that was founded in response to the Soviet Union launch of Sputnick. Its mission is to not only prevent any further technological surprises to the United States but to generate a few of its own for enemies of the USA to think about. It specializes in short term, cutting edge projects and its only charter is ‘radical’ innovation. DARPA has a long term commitment to Hypersonic Aircraft powered by scramjet engines. As to its organization, imagine “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.”

In the UK, BAE Systems is the aviation firm of choice for the British government. BAE has funded its own research into UAV technologies and demonstrators for ten years. Programs include stealth and low observability, systems integration and system control infrastructure. They developed two of the candidates for the mysterious UAV in Afghanistan.

Lockheed_F-5 (P-38)_LightningLockheed F-5 (P-38) – D-Day invasion stripes
Photo – Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is a multinational aerospace manufacturer with headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland and the world’s largest defense contractor. Lockheed Martin developed the Trident Missile, F-16, F-22 and has the contract for the F-35 and Orion Project. The latter will be the next generation space ship for human flight. Their division of Advanced Development Programs, organized in the early days of WWII, is known as Skunk Works. The first Skunk Works mission was to develop a fighter that could compete with those made by Messerschmitt in Nazi Germany. The result was the P-38, the most successful fighter of WWII.

X-47B flight conceptPhoto:
X-47B flight concept
Artist – DARPA

Northrup Grumman is the fourth largest defense contractor in the world, and the largest builder of naval vessels. It developed and produced the B-2 Spirit strategic bomber and is actively bidding on new strategic aircraft programs.

Identify? The Mysterious UAV in Afghanistan

The list of candidates for the mysterious UAV in Afghanistan is not long, and the aircraft must take into account the few design specifics that have leaked out. Let’s take a look.

Photos disclose a ‘fat’ wing chord, and a large central fuselage faring. (‘Fat wing chord’ refers to short stubby wings versus those that are long, graceful and more tapered. Faring, more commonly spelled ‘fairing’ is a contoured component designed to reduce drag.) Aircraft engine nozzle is shaped like a half moon as is that on the Lockheed P-175 Pole Cat, but is not cranked on the tailing edge as is the PC. The fuselage fairing could support a large squared off intake, or a large satellite communications and sensor equipment mix. Two large blisters on either side of the central fairing are likely to be the intakes for a single turbofan engine. The large doors inboard of the main landing gear may be bomb bay doors, indicating that this aircraft is weaponized.

BAE Systems CoraxPhoto:
UK-BAE Systems_Corax UAV
Photo – BAE Systems / Wikipedia

Candidate #1 – BAE Systems Corax (Raven) is a prototype, stealth UAV developed by BAE Systems for the British military. Corax first flew in 2004 and was unveiled to the public in January 2006. It is not known how many Corax have been built. Overall size seems small for the UAV seen in Afghanistan, but Corax is powered by a jet engine, which many UAVs are not. (HERTI, a small, propellor driven, very low speed UAV built by BAE Systems was deployed by the RAF in Afghanistan, summer 2007.)
UK-BAE Systems – Taranis UACV model
Photo – Mike Young / Wikipedia

Candidate #2 BAE Systems Taranis: Development began on a demonstrator in 2006 and when finalized, the Taranis will be one of the largest jet powered UCAVs in the world with a 9.1m wingspan. Assembly of Taranis began in September 2007, and ground testing will take place in 2009. First flight trials at the Woomera test range, Australia are planned for 2010. With this time frame, Taranis would not appear to be a candidate for the mysterious UAV observed at Kandahar, Afghanistan in spring 2009. Then again, the Brits are quite efficient with UAV development programs. Raven, which was the predecessor to Corax, went from concept to first flight in ten months in 2003 and Corax was then completed in 2005. Is Taranis ahead of schedule? Is a wingspan of 30-32’ big enough to account for what was observed at Kandahar?

Lockheed Martin P-175 flight photo – Franborough (UK) Air Show / 2006
Photo – Wikipedia

Candidate #3 Lockheed Martin P(olecat)-175: The Polecat was funded internally at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Group (Skunk Works). The P-175 was developed in 18 months and unveiled at the Franborough Air Show in 2006. Only one aircraft was built and little is known about the design, but Polecat could be weaponized and had a 90’ wingspan. Altitude is believed to have been 65,000’ with a flight duration of 4 hours. The one aircraft manufactured crashed and was destroyed on Dec.16, 2006, a serious setback to the Skunk Works UAV programs. But was more than one aircraft manufactured even though released information says otherwise? If so, does this ‘Polecat” have advanced capabilities? Aviation Week’s report about the Polecat mentioned The Long Range Strike Program for the USAF. The LRSP’s formal design and development will occur in 2010, with operational capacity no later than 2018.

Northrop_Grumman X-47B UCAS landing at NAWS China Lake, Mojave Desert, California
Photo – DARPA

Candidate #4 Northrup Grumman X-47B – Pegasus X-47A is the original designation for this UAV, which was first flown in February 2003. X-47B refers to the version recently deployed to the United States Navy. In 2004, DARPA awarded a contract for three full scale X-47B demonstrators. The program was halted by the US DOD but resumed under a new guise when Northrup Grumman was selected by the Navy to develop a version of the X-47B that could be carrier based. Flight testing commenced in April, 2009. The USN has recently released several photographs of the X-47B landing and taking off from a carrier. If these photos are not composites created for publicity purposes, they indicate that testing carrier landings is well ahead of schedule.

Northrop_Grumman X-47B UCAS on carrier deck
Photo – DARPA

Built from advanced composite materials, the X-47B now with the USN does not carry weapons. Pegasus has a diamond-kite profile and stealth design with extreme backward sweep on the wing leading edge and 35° forward sweep on the trailing edge. There is a high elevon at the mid section of each wing’s trailing edge, and no tail or vertical fin. Wingspan is 62.1 ft (18.92 m) and cruising speed is 0.45 Mach, with high subsonic maximum speed and altitude of 40,000’. As a candidate for the mysterious UAV in Afghanistan, Pegasus has good size and one can imagine test flights from offshore carriers. But as a carrier based aircraft, why land at Kandahar unless mechanical problems forced the decision?

UAVs, Stealth and UFOs

UAVs have an odd profile when judged against what is expected for military jet aircraft. Stealth capacity further alters plane architecture as noted with wing design for the X-47B. “The Lockheed F-117 uses mostly a faceted surface design, panels that are always at odd angles to the next panel, while the Northrup designed B-2 bomber uses smooth blending. In either case, not only are the designs electronically hard to find, they are also hard to spot with the naked eye until it is far too late.” (Source #6) Glimpses of stealth military aircraft occur on a regular basis and it is difficult to keep a long test route for a ‘black project’ demonstrator completely outside public and commercial airline air space. Furthermore, UAVs fly their missions at slower speeds and at lower altitudes than strategic fighter bombers.

Northrop_Grumman X-47B UCAS on carrier deck
Photo – Northrup Grumman

Many UFO reports of the past several decades are believed to be sightings of demonstrators for military aviation Black Projects. Often only one aircraft with flying capability is manufactured. Latest design aircraft have profiles that would impress everyone, except those with an intimate knowledge of the design, as highly unusual and perhaps not resembling anything assumed to be flying with a sovereign state air force. Black Projects cannot be shared with news media and the general public for valid security reasons.

Reports of UFOs that might be test flights of cutting edge UAV prototypes cannot be commented upon by DARPA, USAF or government departments of State and Defense. Such ‘news’ will hover in the air and catalyze the imagination for many years. Denials that ‘such and such aircraft was not in such and such air space’ on the day and time under scrutiny could be straightforward, or a deliberate attempt to deflect attention away from a military sensitive area or important ‘black’ test flight. What would a farmer in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Britain or the USA think if when casually glancing at the sky, he or she caught a glimpse of a latest design stealth UCAV?
X-43C flight concept
Artist – Media Fusion / NASA

Well, there we have it. Each of these candidates has features that do not easily match what little is known about the unknown UAV in Afghanistan, spring 2009. A solid identification of this aircraft that may or may not be weaponized will likely never be made. Perhaps some day, for reasons of its own, the United States DOD and Air Force (or UK Ministry of Defense) will choose to disclose further information about their latest unmanned reconnaissance aircraft now flying secret missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sources –
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9