Kandahar’s Loch Ness mystery plane returns [Updated]

kandahar uav.jpgKandahar’s Loch Ness monster has been spotted again. This time an actual photo of the beast was published by French journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet, who writes for the Liberation newspaper, on his Secret Defense blog. We last saw the mystery Kandahar aircraft in a drawing by Shephard’s Unmanned Vehicles and a very grainy photo published by Air & Cosmos.

The new photo offers a slightly better view of the nose. Is that a canopy screen above the nose? I wondered in May if this might actually be a manned aircraft, even if it was first sighted on UV.com. If there is a cockpit, where is the air intake for the engine? The half-moon exhaust pipe strikingly resembles the P175 Polecat, a Skunk Works product.

Regardless of how it is piloted, the Kandahar aircraft’s existence raises several existential questions: What does it do? Why do you need a stealthy-looking aircraft to spy on Al Qaeda and the Taliban? What’s all the secrecy about? While I’m asking, can somebody please get a head-on picture?

[UPDATE: Bill Sweetman, of Ares blog infamy, believes the aircraft is the Skunk Works' Desert Prowler, which would make it a UAV.]

56 Responses to Kandahar’s Loch Ness mystery plane returns [Updated]

  1. Gab 1 December, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

    Fairly chunky landing gear for a UAV.

  2. Vladimir 1 December, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

    Is there any indication of the scale of the thing?
    Are the open doors only landing gear covers, or is it a bomb bay as well? If so, and assuming it’s meant to take something the size of a JDAM, it seems a bit small to be manned, no?

  3. Lightndattic 1 December, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    It looks unmanned to my untrained eye. I also see the front landing gear looks to retract sideways clearing the field of view for what looks like an E/O turret on the centerline (dark shape behind main gear doors). I can’t think of anything in A’stan needing a stealth platform to recon, but I can think of several next door that we would like to watch without being seen.

  4. EG 1 December, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

    The gear and main mount looks like it came from a A-6/F-14/E2, which all shared the same basic assembly. (The brakes seem a little small though.)
    If so, there is your scale.

  5. Stephen Trimble 1 December, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Hmm. Is it possible this is built for carrier landings? A Northrop design perhaps? Anybody see a weird flying wing over San Diego recently?

  6. Uwe 1 December, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    Both Iran and China are in the vicinity.
    Both countries seem to be slightly more
    sophisticated than the local baddies.

  7. dave 1 December, 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    What people are labeling the “canopy” sure looks like the air intake to me. It is more in-line with the exhaust and I doubt this is a dual-engine aircraft. The bubble on the side people are labeling as an air intake is probably a communications gear bubble for satellite or AWACS comm links. It may not have a similar bubble on the other wing.

    For scale, check the weeds on the side of the runway. The wheels aren’t too big (check out the landing gear on any flying wing… larger gear seems to be characteristic of a flying wing platform). This seems to be a pretty small aircraft. Perhaps the size of a Cessna 150. I can’t imagine any branch of the military putting a pilot in anything this size into combat without an ejection seat system. And this seems too small for any kind of ejection seat system I’ve ever seen.

  8. TheSheik 1 December, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    I think its much smaller than you guys are thinking. In the background, just under the exhaust is a blue runway light on a short post. Those things are not more than a foot and a half or so tall. I think the plane is much too small to be manned.

  9. Stefan B. 1 December, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    Very good find! The landing gear looks very strong for that craft, so it could have 2 explanations: the craft is very heavy or / and it is suposed to land on open field so it has to be strong enough to get the shocks.

    Regarding the bit in the front – well, can be a “managed by proxy” craft – bit like a radio toy. A beauty, i like it!

  10. Mr Smith 1 December, 2009 at 4:52 pm #

    Look like the X-45C UCAV to me.

  11. Matt Young 1 December, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    I’d be willing to guess this is the Dassault nEUROn.

    http://www.dassault-aviation.com/en/defense/neuron/introduction.html?L=1

  12. Mr Smith 1 December, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    Spec :
    Length 11.9 m (39 ft)
    Wingspan14.9 m (49 ft)
    Height 1.2 m (4 ft)
    Weight (gross) 16600 kg (36500 lb)
    Speed Mach 0.85
    Ceiling 12200 m (40000 ft)
    Mission Radius 2400 km (1300 nm)
    Propulsion General Electric F404-GE-102D turbofan; 31 kN (7000 lb

  13. Matt Young 1 December, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    I’d be willing to guess this is the Dassault nEUROn.

  14. jai 1 December, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    Looks like the BAE Taranis to me.

  15. Secret 1 December, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    Yes it´s manned
    Yes it´s a Skunk Works product…
    Yes it has a EOS…and more..:)
    Yes it has a double intake system left and right of the cockpit..

  16. Paul 1 December, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Looks similar to the Boeing X-45 too…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-45

  17. fail. 1 December, 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    Not much of a secret if i’ve seen it on the discovery channel:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/x-45c-pics.htm

  18. JT 1 December, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    “Why do you need a stealthy-looking aircraft to spy on Al Qaeda and the Taliban?”

    If we wanted to fly unmanned UAVs over Iran to get some closeup pics, Kabul is a convenient operating base. The paint scheme would work well for day light missions.

  19. Stephen Trimble 1 December, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

    All comments are welcome, but any comparison of this thing to the X-45 is blatantly ridiculous. There is no similarity at all.

  20. Cod 1 December, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

    It clearly resembles a darkstar from the side view. Note the relative height of a person in the bottom right corner.
    http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/arpa_uav4.gif

    My guess would be a continuation of the Darkstar program with significant OML changes post program downselect.

  21. aeroxavier 1 December, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

    that was not the neuron or x45 because aparently he was not very big

  22. anon 1 December, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    The author wrote “Why do you need a stealthy-looking aircraft to spy on Al Qaeda and the Taliban?”

    Well don’t forget they have radar too.

    The real reason is secrecy. They can test it in actual combat with very few prying eyes that will live to tell about it.

    I’d say the Afghanistan conflict is an *ideal* place to test new secret weaponry.

    It could be one of the reasons this is dragging on for so long.

    Otherwise my only comment is that I too want to see a frontal view – it looks like a glass cockpit. Why would a UAV need a nice large cockpit.

    I agree with the “no way it’s an X-45 comments…

  23. eg 1 December, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Hello Stephen,
    I don’t think the gear is that heavy for CV ops. I think Stefan B. hit it. Look at the size of the nosewheel! it screams unimproved , austere field!

    Also interesting is my guess is where the payload might be carried. Looks like no CG change at all if dropped. Must make it easier for the operator.

    The waterline of the engine ducting is also interesting given the exhaust location. I think it must not be a very long engine unless the designer sacrificed empty space above it in order to maintain stealth.

    The comment by TheShiek does have me questioning my own comment earlier.

  24. Albert E. 1 December, 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    There’s one of these with all the specs… hidden in a map of Call of Dutty: Medern Warfare 2!

    Just sayin’…

  25. Vector 1 December, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    The paint job points to daytime ops. I think it would be a really good guess to say this thing is gathering the Electronic Order Of Battle and/or ELINT on our friends in Iran. By the massive bay doors underneath it looks like it does have a limited attack cability. Maybe a single SDB in each bay. The only other reason I could imagine for it being in this theater of operations is for pinpoint attacks on key Al Queda targets in Eastern Pakistan with 100% deniability. I would also venture to guess that this is a small UAV, about the same size as a Predetor. As for the gear, I would imagine it is possibly carrier capable or will be in the future OR they simply used the gear of a previous design to make it work. My guess is that it is intended to be carrier deployed at some point.

    Just my thoughts.

  26. Joe B 1 December, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Perhaps X47-B built by Northrop for the Navy, beefy gear for carrier landings?

    http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/lgm_0011.jpg

  27. Matt 1 December, 2009 at 8:14 pm #

    That’s no moon…

  28. Anon 1 December, 2009 at 9:33 pm #

    X-47B Northrop Grumman.

  29. Anon 1 December, 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    X-47B Northrop Grumman – carrier capable. Boeing variant X-47A was non carrier capable in initial builds.

    Gear was from Intruder a/c for mockups and initial builds. Didn’t think it was all that secret anymore – you can see a mock model in front of the El Segundo plant in California as much as 4 years ago.

  30. Anondef 1 December, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    Definitely X47B – which was carrier capable in all of its builds.

    Not really all that secret – there has been one on the pole out front of El Segundo for 5 years….

  31. Stephen Trimble 1 December, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    Ok. Seriously folks. No more comparing this aircraft to the X-45 or the X-47. There is not even a passing resemblance. All other suggestions are welccme.

  32. Lee 1 December, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    Split top intakes, l.g. retracts forward for c.g. reasons…STURDY landing gear; nose gear a puzzler (strange doors). My guess is NOT recon: too sturdily built and other types in region do just fine. How about…trial run, in secret, under combat conditions of one of the new UCAV prototypes to train controlers and get a picture of how it can maneuver under real world stress, plus high-tech logistical tail involved? (They did a ‘real world’ trial run of USAF Special Ops CV-22 Ospreys even before official IOC date…)

    IF so, where are the weapons? Hard points? Given the nose, might it be testing an HPM system? But against what?

    Just some thoughts…

  33. C. Reed 1 December, 2009 at 11:06 pm #

    I would offer that this mid/late 1990s LM patent has some similarity to what is being shown at Kandahar:

    http://www.dataviewbooks.com/beast.html

  34. Austin Bjorklund 2 December, 2009 at 12:01 am #

    I saw this on Gizmodo today and had to laugh. I don’t think it’s as secret as you may think. Just spend some time flying around Beale in and around O52 and KMYV and you’ll see what I mean. Why do you think they’ve had a ‘permanent’ TFR in place there for the last couple years?

  35. Drop Bear 2 December, 2009 at 1:43 am #

    Nose wheel retract side ways to avoid the problems of an off centre EO pod hence the large bay door? Large main wheels retract in a rotating manner forwards and wheels turned 90 degrees possibly.

    Cresent moon exhaust reminds me alot of the TACIT BLUE, wheels look identical to those on the X-47B demo aircraft rolled out a while back..

    So I am going to go out on a limb and say this is a Northrop pure recon UAV designed for laser and other methods of designation of targets designed to work in tandem with other UCAVs.

  36. nicolae 2 December, 2009 at 4:12 am #

    just a thought, maybe we are looking at the wrong role.Landing gear does seems oversized,could this thing be carrier based? How about flying off a carrier in the Gulf, gather intel over Iran and land in Afghanistan,refuel,fly back to the carrier? It probably doesn’t have the range, but who knows? It sure looks stealthy enough, it would be hard to be pick up visually and IR should be small also.

  37. Mars HQ Regiment 2 December, 2009 at 6:34 am #

    Perhaps an in-house funded, semi-autonomous ‘UCAV’ test-bed (possibly scale model noting overkill landing gear); being ‘rush’ offered/trialled for special ISR duty over A-stan? I’ll shoot from the hip and say make: General Atomic, to possibly compete with X-45/X-47 class.

    Length: 23′
    Span: 40′
    ISR payload as shown
    High sub-sonic cruise

  38. mrmalaya 2 December, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

    i think we have to go with the expert consensus that this is a LM product. It makes sense that its being used to spy on the countries neighbouring afghan like Iran, China and Pakistani territory (rather than defence capabilities).

    I also agree that having a totally deniable system for striking targets in pakistan is useful (paper bombs, Clear and Present Danger anyone?) but probably not the reason for having this sort of thing flying around.

  39. SLCPilot 2 December, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    I think we may actually be looking at TWO different systems operating out of Kandahar. Let’s look at the above photo and make sure it’s the same one seen here…

    http://tinyurl.com/p49j7g

    I think a few there are a few differnces…
    1) nose gear and the nose gear door
    2) the main gear being in or outboard of the gear doors
    3) the sweep angle (s), one cranked platform
    4) the markings on the bottom of the aircraft

    Comments? Ideas?

  40. Drop Bear 2 December, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    This is just my speculation, but could it be that we are looking at a hunter / killer team? a stand off attack platform (cranked wing for higher cruise speeds) and a straight edged (as pictured) recon / designator unit with longer loiter time and lower speeds?

    Also, in 2003 there was an article online that spoke of U-2 pilots seeing a ‘dark star like platform’, and the consensus was that it would have all the communications equipment on top as to lower the possibility of detection…

    Just my musings, but I really agree these are two seperate systems at work.

    maybe, just maybe its the ‘in service’ dark star like UAv with the USAF variant of the X-47B that went black.

  41. nicolae 3 December, 2009 at 4:00 am #

    It doesn’t look at all like a smaller brother to Darkstar, more like Polecat. I like the idea of two platforms although i think this is the faster one.
    I thought we were already using Predators in secret over Pak? not really sure why you would need this system? Just to test it? Also not convinced about austere landing, why would you need that? No, this thing is flying over Iran for my money.

  42. Mars HQ Regiment 3 December, 2009 at 7:46 am #

    I’ll agree with the possibility of a ‘multiple mystery a/c theory’. The images show a similar wing however, IMHO. Neither seem to actually be excessively ‘cranked’ per se (well, i’ll say less cranked than X-45B), yet both start about 1/3 down the airframe and seem to follow a straight line @ a similar sweep angle? The wheel bays however do appear to be different (examing of course one poor quality image) which from this eye at least appear to be the only obvious differences.

    Perhaps competing Test UCAVs are being pressed into operational ISR trials for fly-off evaluations? Maybe they are slightly different variants of the same make?? I.E., one Air-force, and one Navy – perhaps explaining slightly different gear lay out, longer struts, etc?

    I’m still thinking the above shot could be a sub-scale test-bed though, given that a slightly larger scale would seem to better fit munitions?

  43. tom d. friedman 4 December, 2009 at 6:39 am #

    the days of the manned bomber, fighter, recon pilots are limited, & the cut off point is fast arriving. the u.s. govt. will wack manned fighters & bombers when a cyborwarbird can loiter over a target for days, stop, re-fuel or aerial refuel & sortie again for 3 more days. only transport / cargo / medivac will still have the manned element for years to come. these uav’s will save the govt plenty, & can be adapted here in the u.s. to track illegal immigrants, dope pushers, fugitives etc. wow…. these are great times!!

  44. GRi 5 December, 2009 at 5:30 pm #

    This is actually the RQ-170 Sentinel from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works:

    http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_generic.jsp?channel=defense&id=news/BEAST120409.xml&headline=USAF%20Confirms%20Stealthy%20UAV%20Operations

  45. 3azeez 6 December, 2009 at 4:52 am #

    Ah! There have been a lot of reports in Kuwait about weird flying object for the past couple of weeks. Since we have many US bases here, and we are very close from Iran and Iraq, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what they so.

    So basically what is so special about this, and unlike old drones, this has the ability to climb vertically very quickly.

  46. Captn Tommy 7 December, 2009 at 2:00 am #

    Navy ? Steath? Manned? Could it be….. A-12 RETURNS!!!!!!!!

    Look a manned single seat stealth can be from anywhere. perhaps Russian, Perhaps commercial. They say “The Sky’s The Limit”. Besides an ejection seat can be pretty small. (see Rocket tug.)

    so be it.

  47. FeldWill 9 December, 2009 at 2:51 am #

    Proud of US.

  48. Ian 9 December, 2009 at 6:14 am #

    This is the RQ-170 Sentinel. This UAV (not a UCAV) is mainly for recon gathering missions. It has been said that it does not carry any weapons. The RQ-170 Sentinel was developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works as a stealth UAV. The link that is provided provides a close-up front view but not the whole thing. The Air Force confirmed it on 08 December 2009.

  49. Drop Bear 9 December, 2009 at 2:37 pm #

    Any one notice that this has a Predator C main wheel flap for the nose gear? Add to that, it has X-47B mains from Smiths Aerospace which is part of the GE group since 2007.

  50. notthere 1 January, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    Just amazed no one mentions similarity to the Gotha 229/Horten IX aircraft of ’44.

    Don’t see much different here except one engine and shoulder intakes (shrouded from ground radar) and nobody ever admiting where the research was done.

    Doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of low radar signature so may be old photo, old research.

  51. notthere 1 January, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    Just amazed no one mentions similarity to the Gotha 229/Horten IX aircraft of ’44.

    Don’t see much different here except one engine and shoulder intakes (shrouded from ground radar) and nobody able to say where built, where the research was done, or WHEN built.

    Doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of low radar signature so may be old photo, old research. Wheel well hatch longer than gear!!

  52. Drop Bear 3 January, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    Taking a look through some older books on the SR-71, I was astonished to see a project thats a semi flying wing – GUSTO 2 / II.

    http://img694.imageshack.us/img694/5825/gustoii.jpg

    http://img94.imageshack.us/img94/289/gustoiia.jpg

    The first image is the over wing details, the second is a size scale in comparison to the U-2. Oh and this early variant was manned..

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  54. Drop Bear 4 October, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/50271097@N04/5033149847/

    This photo has been credited to Michael Yon (Uber famous war photographer).

    I added the link because it gives a clearer view of the frontal aspect – and what an unusual airframe it is!

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