US Air Force spokesmen confirmed this week that the hitherto secret unmanned, high-altitude stealth jet, the so-called “Beast of Kandahar,” was present at the big US air base of Bagram, in Afghanistan. Photos of the Beast on the Bagram tarmac - outside its regular base at Kandahar near the Iranian and Pakistani borders - appeared in various Internet sites this week.
Designated RQ-170 Sentinel, it is the first jet drone ever developed for military use. France’s EURO Demonstrator is a similar project which will be ready for test flights only in another two years.
Little is known about the Sentinel, which was manufactured by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program. USAF spokesmen disclosed only that its new deployment responded to secretary of defense Robert Gates’ request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for combatant commanders in Afghanistan.
According to DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, Washington had a reason for letting the Beast surface at this time in the form of a published photograph and a note about its ability to fly over the borders of Iran, China, India and Pakistan for collecting “useful data about missile tests, telemetry, signals and multi-spectral intelligence. The disclosure came on the heels of Iran’s big air defense exercise for guarding its nuclear sites which ended in the third week of November; it appears to be a message to Tehran that all its war games, especially in intelligence and electronic warfare, were pointless since its skies are wide open to American drone activity against which Iran has no recourse.
Some of the Web sites, including the veteran Aviation Week, speculate about the Sentinel’s configuration and features from the published image, describing it as “a tailless flying wing design” with sensor pods built into the upper surface of each wing.
Its designation denotes an unarmed drone rather than the armed Predator UAV which has been used to fire missiles at terrorist sites on the Pakistan-Afghan border. But this assumption is open to question in view of the impression of “a deep, fat center-body” which could house a bomb or missile bay.
Furthermore, its is painted medium grey like the Predator or Reaper, rather than the dark gray or overall black that would provide better concealment at high altitudes.
Both these features suggest the mysterious Beast of Kandahar may have secret functions other than pure reconnaissance.