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For months, aerospace writers have been hot on the trail of a secret drone rumored to be flying over Afghanistan. Now, a French journalist has successfully captured a picture of this mysterious unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which experts have linked to defense giant Lockheed Martin.
This photo, taken in Kandahar, provides more evidence to claims that unidentified drones are flying over Afghanistan, to go along with well-known models -- such as the Predator UAV -- long acknowledged by the Pentagon. A vexing question remains, though: What's it being used for?
UAVs, once an esoteric military weapon, have grown in use and prominence in recent years, particularly in the CIA's expanded "drone war" in Pakistan. Confirmation of this new, secret UAV, however, raises the intriguing question of whether the public is still entirely in the dark about some aspects of this military strategy.
When reports of the mystery drone circulated in April, some speculated it was related to a Lockheed aircraft called the Desert Prowler. But the aircraft in the latest photo appears to share features with a different Lockheed model, the Polecat. "The half-moon exhaust pipe strikingly resembles the P175 Polecat, a [Lockheed] Skunk Works product," aerospace reporter Stephen Trimble writes on his DEW Line blog, referring to a stealthy Lockheed prototype plane that the company says crashed in 2007.
According to one estimate, the mystery plane's deployment in Afghanistan dates back about two years. "It's believed that the first of a small batch of aircraft flew in late 2005 and were operational in Afghanistan in 2007 (where this photo was probably taken)," aerospace reporter Bill Sweetman says on Aviation Week's ARES blog.
While earlier reports speculated the mystery aircraft could be an armed drone, the new photographic evidence seems to point to a stealthy spy plane with surveillance and communications equipment. But that still leaves other questions.
"Why use a stealth aircraft against an adversary that doesn't have radar?" Sweetman asks. "And if it was part of some Secret Squirrel operation against the Taliban, what in the blue blazes was it doing outdoors in daylight?"
It may take the Pentagon to provide those final answers.