USAF’s New Drone Not Going to Afghanistan

Two weeks ago news reports emerged claiming that the Air Force will be sending a one-off copy of General Atomics Predator C Avenger UAV to Afghanistan where it would be tested in a combat environment.

The reports were based off an Air Force solicitation announcing its intention to buy the jet-powered drone and test out its ability to perform ISR missions and drop weapons downrange.

However, I revisited the solicitation last Friday and noticed that it was updated on Dec. 14 to say “cancelled.”

I contacted General Atomics about this on Friday and here’s what company spokeswoman Kimberley Kasitz told me via email:

To our knowledge, this solicitation has not been cancelled.  What may be happening here is that the solicitation was incorrect to say that the aircraft would be deployed to Afghanistan.  This procurement is designed for R&D only at this time.

She added later that day, “our understanding is that this procurement will be as a test asset.”

I contacted the Air Force on Monday and received an email today from spokesman, Lt. Col. John Haynes, confirming what Kasitz said:

One Predator C aircraft will be procured by the US Air Force for test and evaluation of the system’s performance characteristics only. It will be assigned as a test aircraft and operated by Air Force Materiel Command. There is no intention to deploy the aircraft in the war in Afghanistan at this time.

The solicitation has since been updated to erase any signs that it ever said cancelled. The part saying where the aircraft will be used has been redacted.

The Predator C “will be used as a test asset in [redacted] and will provide a significantly increased weapons and sensors capability on an aircraft that will be able to fly to targets much more rapidly than the MQ-9 UAS,” reads the document.

As Aviation Week recently noted, this could be an effort to restart the services dormant MQ-X next-gen combat UAV program that was put on hold so that the service could develop requirements for a more stealthy and survivable drone. With budget cuts looming, the Air Force may want to get an existing jet into the field quickly so as to avoid the difficulties in launching a brand new program.

Click through the jump to read the latest version of the solicitation.

Predc Redacted Posting

  • extreme_one

    Perhaps they don’t want Iran to capture another one =)

    • PolicyWonk

      Yeah – Iran already got an early Xmas present :-P

  • Black Owl

    The Iranians proved that UAVs can be hacked. No surprise here.

    I wonder what the USAF’s alternatives to drones will be should they develope a requirement for them. Small manned aircraft maybe?

    • Adam

      The report now is that it was not hacked, It was fooled. The UAV was programmed to return to base if it looses contact. They blocked the signal and sent it False GPS Coordinants. The bird thought it was landing in Afganistan.

    • jumper

      Let me guess…. Super Hornets should replace all drones and all UAV programs should be cancelled immediately. Right?

      • William C.

        Super Drone Hornets!

        • Black Owl

          Adam, that sounds strangely like hacking to me.

          Yeah, no. This is a role that the Super Hornet cannot fulfill. I was think more long the lines of a smaller version of the U-2.

          • William C.

            The U-2 is woefully outdated against modern integrated air defense systems, hence the SR-71.

            A smaller U-2 would likely mean less range and a lower operational altitude, making it more vulnerable.

            It’s better losing a drone like the RQ-170 over a pilot and U-2 derivative.

          • Black Owl

            What I’m thinking of is how hard the Iranians would have to work to bring down a U-2 relative to how hard they had to work to capture the RQ-170 and the risks that they’ll need to take in terms of getting it.

            They had few risks to themselves to do whatever it is they needed to do to get the drone. To get a manned aircraft they would have to shoot it down, which poses risks to themselves that I doubt they’d be willing to take.

    • IronV

      You have no clue whatsoever. There is no credible report it was “hacked” or “spoofed.” In fact, either scenario is highly unlikely. As for the Iranians “proving” anything, you might as well throw a laptop onto monkey island at the zoo and let them have their way with it…

      • Black Owl

        Great. Please tell me what your wonderful explanation for the RQ-170 ending up in Iran is then. If it wasn’t hacked or spoofed, then what the heck happened to it? Do you think it was struck by lightning and turned on us?

        • IronV

          Hacking military GPS is not a likely scenario. Is it theoretically possible the thing was jammed or duped? Don’t know. But it is far and away the least feasible event. What is by far the most likely scenario is a systemic failure. I’ll go with the odds. BTW, all the hacking and spoofing stuff came from an Iranian engineer and has been debunked…

  • Lance

    So what the older Predator will do fine as well.

  • Nathan

    If the UAV was really hacked, I’d be surprised if they haven’t been fixed by now.

    Like commercial airliners, UAVs use a combination of navigation techniques. Apart from GPS, these include commercial/military navigation beacons, signal triangulation, terrain mapping (which cruise missiles use), and also a good old fashioned compass and airspeed. There’s no reason a UAV should be any more susceptible to “getting lost” than any manned aircraft.

  • Musson1

    This was a huge backdoor in the UAV’s operating system. But, once it’s exposed I would assume it was closed very quickly.

    From what I have heard the Iranians managed to confuse / jam the signal and then spoof the GPS signal. (Using the new Russian ELINT trucks and Russian Nationals).

    If I recall, the Russians sold Sadam Hussein some GPS spoofing equipment that screwed up our precision bombing campaign in Iraq – Until some US missiles were adjusted to home in on the GPS spammers. Maybe some of those missiles will find their way into IRAN.

  • Bob

    Military-grade GPS receivers operate on a different segment of the band than commercial GPS and is encrypted using a key generated by the NSA. That is what allows military GPS to have a better resolution <3.3 meters than a commercial receiver. Also, the signals can be de-tuned on the commercial side (as was done during Deserts Storm) to degrade accuracy. If you have a boat and used a commercial receiver during Desert Storm you were better off falling back on LORAN for navigation.

    The signal cannot be 'hacked' unless someone has the digital key to decrypt the signal. The keys get updated on a pre-set schedule.

    What you could do was flood that band of the spectrum in a local environment thus causing the unit to think it had lost its signal. It should then run a routine to return to base or some 'safe area'. I would be greatly surprised if it did not do this using inertial navigation (what everyone used before GPS and what subs still use when submerged and underway).

    I doubt very much the loss of the drone had anything to do with a nav/GPS systems failure as redundancy can be built in to the system to allow for those failures.

    What probably was not built in was a back-up for a .35 widget made by the lowest (most likely Chinese) sub-contractor that caused a failure in the propulsion system. Remember the shroud around the unit when it was on display? That's cause it had a hard landing and tore the hell out of the bottom. Writing a routine to return to a spot, check in on the ILS and do a full-instrumented recovery (including landing gear deployment) is not impossible. Lengthy, but not impossible.

    However, I doubt the propulsion lost, initiate engine restart routine includes a 'gear down, 3 green?" check. Failure to relight the engine, loss of airspeed = loss of lift -> crash.

    Its usually the simplest of thinks that make things wind up badly.

  • Tadum

    I used to enjoy flying kites since I was a young boy. I remembered one sad day when one of my favorite kites broke off its string during a flight and ended up in some neighborhoods a few blocks away. The next day, one of those boys from that neighborhood flew my kite and other kids were impressed at his made-up fairy tale of how he managed to use a kite-killer kite to swoop in, cut my line and “captured” my kite.

    Shhh… I lost my damn kite by accident.

  • Rob

    Why announce anything,unless it’t propaganda.

  • Elijah

    Kilroy was here.

  • Chris Wagner

    It simply ran out of gas.

  • Thomas

    I personally was a previous contract officer buying predators and their weapon systems/parts. I believe a modification described to a R&D is not uncommon. I was there during A & B models only. I purchased #100 of the A and put the first big bombs on them. Good times. Sure the same civilian team is there working along side a couple rotating military COs and program managers. The continuity the civilian workforce provided within Predator and B.S. ensure things like above remain on the up and up thanks to the scrutiny of the public nowadays.

  • pipjoint

    Of course it is not. I agree with the other posters-they haven’t figured out how Iran captured the other and they don’t want to lose another. The profit for the military-industrial complex at this point is building a whole new fleet of new drones that can’t be captured by a small country like Iran.

    What a disgusting shame—America is now the warmongering empire to the world

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