December 4, 2009: Last April, an unidentified, jet propelled UAV was spotted operating from the American airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Now there's a picture
. While some have speculated that it is one of the secret American UAV projects, it's also similar to the French designed nEUROn Demonstrator, a six ton, jet powered combat and reconnaissance UAV. But this aircraft is still in development, and is not expected to make its first flight for another two years.
After the photos of the UAV had been all over the Internet for a few days, The U.S. Air Force admitted that the UAV was theirs and described it as an unarmed RQ-170. But they would not reveal anything else, apparently wishing to keep the projects partly secret, for as long as possible.
The Kandahar UAV is a flying wing design, similar to the X-45s and X-47s built as development aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were built to carry weapons, and the one spotted in Afghanistan may have a bomb bay as well. The U.S. Air Forces X-45A combat UAV (UCAV) dropped its first smart bomb in 2004. There are also purely reconnaissance jet powered UAVs built, in secret, as experimental vehicles.
Why test such a UAV in Afghanistan? For one thing, it could see how well the aircraft does under combat conditions, against an elusive foe. Another reason might be to test the stealth by flying it over China (which shares a short border with Afghanistan), or, more likely, Iran (which is close to Kandahar).
The U.S. has been flying UAVs like this for over six years. This design has been tested using in-flight refueling, formation flying and landing on a land based mockup of an aircraft carrier deck.