The U.S. Air Force is sending a single copy of a brand-new stealth drone to Afghanistan. Only maybe not just Afghanistan.
Officially, the General Atomics-made Avenger — a sleek, jet-powered upgrade of the iconic armed Predator and Reaper — is heading to Afghanistan as a combat-capable “test asset.” The Air Force said in a statement that it loves how the Avenger’s “internal weapons bay and four hardpoints on each wing,” will give it “greater flexibility and will accommodate a large selection of next generation sensor and weapons payloads,” as reported by Zach Rosenberg at Flightglobal.
Problem is, you don’t really need those things in Afghanistan. Internal weapons bays, which hide the radar signatures of bombs and missiles, are for stealth: most warplanes don’t have them. And it’s not like the Taliban has been firing radar-guided missiles at NATO aircraft. Besides, there are already dozens of armed drones in Afghanistan. One more isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Which begs the question: Is the 41-foot-long Avenger really meant for Afghanistan? Or is it destined to patrol over Afghanistan’s unruly neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, both of which do have radar-guided missiles? That was a job assigned to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel before one of those drones crashed in Iran two weeks ago. We’re sure the Air Force has a few more RQ-170s to throw at Iran and Pakistan. After all, the elusive ‘bots have been spotted in Afghanistan, South Korea and Japan. But the Avenger, which debuted just two years ago, is newer and more capable than the Sentinel, which is widely believed to be a product of the early 2000s.
The Avenger reportedly carries a ground-mapping radar and the same ultra-sophisticated cameras as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, making it a perfect candidate for quietly snooping above, say, suspected nuclear facilities or terrorist camps guarded by air-defense radars and missiles. And for a psychological impact, there’s nothing like an advanced, armed stealth drone to put a dent in Iran’s swagger after Tehran captured an apparently intact RQ-170.
To be clear: The Air Force isn’t sending the Avenger to Afghanistan specifically in response to the Iranian drone capture. The flying branch initiated the Avenger purchase back in July, long before we saw the Iranian military on YouTube apparently poking at a dinged-up Sentinel in what appears to be a high school gymnasium.
It’s also not a sure bet that the Avenger would even see action in Afghanistan. The air war over Afghanistan is winding down, big time. NATO warplanes dropped just 310 bombs last month, compared to 866 in November 2010, according to U.S. Central Command. High-tech drone reinforcements are a more natural fit for escalating surveillance operations over Iran and Pakistan than for the Afghanistan war.
The Air Force purchase is apparently the first for the Avenger. The swept-wing General Atomics robot is compatible with the same ground-based control systems as the Predator and Reaper (and possibly the RQ-170, as well). It’s likely the Avenger will simply slot into existing Air Force drone squadrons.
Along with Boeing’s X-45C and Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, the Avenger represents the likely backbone of the Air Force’s and Navy’s future killer-drone fleets. But first, the Avenger will ply its secret trade over Iran and Pakistan Afghanistan. Totally.
Photo: General Atomics