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Stealth drones on the way to the Air Force?

Stealth drones on the way to the Air Force?
The US Air Force’s missile-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles might be even deadlier soon. A new report suggests that Uncle Sam is spending money on adding virtually invisible stealth drones to his arsenal of UAVs.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) all but admits that stealth drones are regularly deployed for counterterrorism missions and routine reconnaissance, but until now it’s been believed that that type of aircraft is absent from the Air Force. In a new report by Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week, though, the journalist entertains the idea that the military is making a move to procure stealth drones for future overseas endeavors.

According to Sweetman, stealth capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles, or ISR UAVs, only makes sense as far as the Air Force is concerned.

“ISR aircraft do not have to be agile or supersonic, two expensive complicating factors for stealth technology,” he writes. “Stealth is one of the few ways for UAVs, which mostly cannot detect threats reliably, let alone shoot back, to survive in denied or contested airspace.”

“There is a double bonus if the mission can be accomplished undetected, since intelligence will be untainted by camouflage or deception. It is surprising that the US has only known active stealth ISR UAV programs, one of them industry-funded,” he adds, but not before noting that his research suggests that both big-name defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are possibly putting together a stealth drone for military use.

David Axe, a reporter for Wired’s Danger Room, adds that a stealth UAV is a likely addition to the Air Force’s fleet of vehicles, especially as resources shift following the end of the war in Iraq and the expected gradual withdrawal in Afghanistan.

“All the military branches are revamping their arsenals for an era in which they anticipate fewer long-term counter-insurgency campaigns and more short, high-intensity wars such as last year’s Libya campaign plus the ongoing responsibility of deterring a rising China,” Axe writes.

“In fact, it makes sense for UAV development for the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan era to favor 'black' programs. As America’s wars become more high-tech and its foes more heavily armed, the Air Force will need truly cutting-edge drones — the robot equivalents of the Cold War F-117 and B-2 stealth warplanes, both of which were designed and initially produced in total secrecy in order to protect their pricey new technologies.”

In Sweetman’s report for Aviation Week, the writer points to a trove of documentation laying out the groundwork for a series of UAV projects and implies a stealth drone for the Air Force seems all too likely.

“What this suggests is that the Air Force still believes in stealth—but not necessarily in the classic “alone and unafraid” model. Instead, the unmanned “enablers”—the ISR platform and low-power, close-in jammers—will disrupt the defenses enough for the all-aspect, broadband stealth of the bombers to protect them. But when the new systems will be disclosed is anyone's guess,” he writes.