Beast of Kandahar Is Back in Action
David A. Fulghum
1:43 PM on Aug 10, 2010
The U.S. Air Force’s stealthy UAV has returned to Afghanistan, and Israel is conducting strategic operations with its long-range UAVs.
The U.S. Air Force is reintroducing its stealthy RQ-170s to operations in Afghanistan, and Israel is using its Israel Aerospace Industries-built Heron 1 and/or Heron 2 UAVs to observe, target and strike smugglers in the Red Sea. Both events are signs that technologically advanced militaries are relying more on missions flown by unmanned aircraft.
The latest twist is that the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel flying wing either has returned or is returning to operations in Afghanistan, this time with a full motion video (FMV) capability that ground commanders have been demanding as part of the continuing ISR buildup in the country.
What’s not clear is whether the Sentinel’s stealth enables the conduct of unobserved surveillance missions near or over the borders with Iran and Pakistan. The platform is the product of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. The remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) was first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007. It is operated by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range Airport, Nev. It is described by Air Force officials as a “stealthy, unmanned aircraft system to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces.”
Asked during his final interview Aug. 2 as Air Force intelligence chief about the need for the continuing secrecy that surrounds the RQ-170, Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, said, “I can’t tell you, [but] the fact of the matter is that we have a stealthy, remotely piloted aircraft that’s out there.”
Deptula was asked how the Air Force fields a sizeable force of survivable RPAs – like the RQ-170 – with a mainstream acquisition program without the punitive costs that have accompanied stealth designs in the past.
“Those kinds of questions are exactly what we’re addressing right now as we develop an initial capabilities document for the next generation of remotely piloted aircraft,” he says. “We can’t do business in a serial fashion like we have before. We’re not looking for the next version of the MQ-9 that can fly faster and go higher. Can we physically change the characteristics of an aircraft to adapt it to different roles by making it more survivable through shape and treatments? Or can we change its function from strike platform one day to cargo delivery the next? I think that’s one way to crack the fiscal-constraint nut.”
The second item of note is the use of one of the Israeli Air Force’s long-endurance UAVs – either the Heron I or Heron II – in cross border operations against smugglers as part of the continuing effort to intercept weapon shipments in the Red Sea area.
There have been shipments of weapons intended for Hamas and Hezbollah by train (via Turkey), aircraft (via Thailand), and ships (via Syria and Egypt), Israeli officials tell Aviation Week. They involved weapons from China, Spain, North Korea and Iran.
“That transfer by sea, land and air has enabled Hezbollah to have a strategic capability today [with] rockets and missiles,” says a senior strategic planner for the Israel Defense Forces. “Now there is the Scud that in principle can hit Jordan and Egypt. [A variety of weapons] were transferred to Hezbollah by Syria and Iran via the Qods force. There are several storage sites in Syria that belong to Hezbollah.”
A raid in Sudan against two truck convoys carrying Fajr 5 missiles from Iran’s Qods Force used an Israel Aerospace Industries Eitan/Heron II as a remote surveillance and targeting platform while Elbit’s Hermes 450 UAVs served as the missile-firing platforms, says a May 29, 2009 report in the London Times.
Some U.S.-based analysts disagree on the details of the mission. They point out that the London Times article refers to a suspected Israeli raid early in 2009.
“The use of Heron  as an Israeli Air Force platform would be problematic because it didn't formally enter IAF service until earlier this year,” said one of the analysts. “Additionally, I haven't seen any confirmation that the [Heron II] platform has been armed. It is suspected to be, certainly, and capable of being armed, but there is no physical confirmation.”
“Eitan could have been used for recce ... rolled out before we knew about it, but the Hermes as a weapons carrier just doesn't make sense when you've the fixed-wing assets involved as well with all their firepower,” he says. “Everything I've seen has stressed that these raids were done by fixed-wing fighters like the F-15I and F-16I,” the analyst says. “There may have been recce assets in the form of UAVs, but I think the basic Heron I would have sufficed for that mission.”
The Eitan/Heron II is operated by 210 Sqd. at Tel Nof AB where it shares facilities with some of the aircraft that it supports – F-15I precision strike aircraft.
“[There are] arms transfers – we don’t call it smuggling,” says the Israeli IDF official. “The issue has become more and more an international and regional problem. It is a crucial element for the future of the Middle East. Iran is trying to establish hegemony [by supporting] radical organizations and their links. The Iranians don’t want a real escalation, but they would like to raise the level of tension. They don’t want to [fight on] three fronts, but if they can close one, they can open another. So Jordan is the main issue, because it is a big buffer for Israel. When the U.S. leaves Iraq, the Jordanians say it will be a nightmare for them.”
The Red Sea is notorious as a smuggling route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq for insurgent leadership, recruits, money and weapons. Eritrea, for example, was sold the much-feared, Russian-made SA-18 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles for its military arsenal. The weapons almost immediately appeared in the hands of Somali insurgents who used one to shoot down a Belarusian contract transport aircraft near Mogadishu.
U.S. officials and other analysts fear that the SA-18 will be smuggled into Iraq and Afghanistan. The anti-aircraft threat in Afghanistan has so far been limited to rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and high-velocity machine guns and light cannon with advanced aiming capabilities.
However, a multiple-missile manpad ambush of a U.S. Army CH-47 in Iraq was foiled last year by a newly installed, laser missile defense system built by BAE Systems. So the next generation missiles are on the black market and in circulation.
ar99, RQ-170, Afghanistan, UAVs, Israel Sudan