The U.S. Air Force is reintroducing its stealthy, unmanned RQ-170 to operations in Afghanistan, and Israel is using its strategic-range UAVs to observe, target and strike smugglers in the Red Sea.
The latest twist is that the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel flying wing either has returned or is returning to Afghanistan with a full-motion video capability that ground commanders have been demanding as part of the continuing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) buildup in the country.
During his final interview on Aug. 2 as Air Force intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula said in reply to a question about the continuing need for secrecy regarding the RQ-170: “I can’t tell you, [but] the fact of the matter is that we have a stealthy, remotely piloted aircraft that’s out there.”
As for how the service can field a sizable force of survivable UAVs with a mainstream acquisition program without incurring the punitive costs that have accompanied stealth designs in the past, Deptula explained: “Those kinds of questions are exactly what we’re addressing right now as we develop an initial capabilities document for the next generation of remotely piloted aircraft.”
The second item of note is the use of one of the Israeli air force’s long-endurance UAVs — either the Heron 1 or Heron 2 — in cross-border operations against smugglers as part of the continuing effort to intercept weapon shipments in the Red Sea area.
There has been such cargo intended for Hamas and Hezbollah transported by train (via Turkey), aircraft (via Thailand) and ships (via Syria and Egypt), Israeli officials tell Aviation Week. The weapons were from China, Spain, North Korea and Iran.
“That transfer by sea, land and air has enabled Hezbollah to have a strategic capability today [with] rockets and missiles,” says a senior strategic planner for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“Now there is the Scud that in principle can hit Jordan and Egypt. [A variety of weapons] were transferred to Hezbollah by Syria and Iran via the Qods Force. There are several storage sites in Syria that belong to Hezbollah.”
A raid in Sudan against two truck convoys carrying Fajr 5 missiles from Iran’s Qods Force used an Israel Aerospace Industries Eitan/Heron 2 as a remote surveillance and targeting platform, while Elbit Hermes 450 UAVs served as the missile-firing platforms, according to a May 29, 2009, report in The Times of London.
Some U.S.-based analysts disagree on the details of the mission. They point out that the Times article refers to a suspected Israeli raid in early 2009.
“The use of Heron  as an Israeli air force platform would be problematic because it didn’t formally enter IAF service until earlier this year,” said one of the analysts.
“Additionally, I haven’t seen any confirmation that the [Heron 2] platform has been armed. It is suspected to be and capable of being armed, but there is no physical confirmation.
“Eitan could have been used for recce . . . rolled out before we knew about it, but the Hermes as a weapons carrier just doesn’t make sense when you have the fixed-wing assets involved with all their firepower,” he says.
“Everything I’ve seen has stressed that these raids were done by fixed-wing fighters like the F-15I and F-16I. There may have been recce assets in the form of UAVs, but I think the basic Heron 1 would have sufficed for that mission.”