18 May 2012
Two years ago, pictures leaked of a previously unknown, bat-winged drone operating out of Afghanistan’s Kandahar airport. Speculation spiked about the mission of the mysterious aircraft, instantly nicknamed “the Beast of Kandahar” by secret plane-spotter extraordinaire Bill Sweetman.
The drone’s smooth, curved shape meant it was stealthy — hard for radars to spot. But the Taliban didn’t have any radars. So what was the Beast doing?
Some suggested that it might be snooping on Iran’s nuclear program. Others thought the drone (officially known as the RQ-170 Sentinel) might be the test bed for a new, microwave weapon to fry enemy electronics or a next-gen jammer to screw with enemy communications. The drone was even spotted over Korea; maybe it was watching missile launches while avoiding the prying eyes of our foes in Pyongyang?
Turns out, the Beast wasn’t dodging enemy radars, at least not lately. It was avoiding detection by our putative allies in Pakistan, as it gathered intelligence about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
The CIA used the drone to “fly dozens of secret missions deep into Pakistani airspace and monitor the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed,” according to the Washington Post
The use of the Beast in the hunt for bin Laden has been a more-or-less open secret since the May 2nd raid on his compound. But the extent of the drone’s employment wasn’t clear.
In fact, we called the bin Laden compound “drone-proof” shortly after the assault, because of its location far inside Pakistani territory and near a military cantonment. Send a standard-issue Predator or a Reaper drone there, “and it lights up on radar like a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Pakistani surface-to-air missiles would have brought it down in an instant,” we wrote.
Which is why the CIA went with the Beast, instead. “It’s not like you can just park a Predator overhead — the Pakistanis would know,” a former U.S. official tells the Post. But a stealth drone can sneak right by.
Of course, Islamabad allows U.S. drones to fly over its territory all the time. But that’s in the remote tribal areas along the Afghan border. Bin Laden’s crib was 35 miles from the Pakistani capital. Totally different story.
The Beast never spotted bin Laden directly. But “the agency concluded
after months of watching the complex that the figure frequently seen
pacing back and forth was probably the al-Qaida chief,” according to the
paper. The drone, which is believed to have a
48-foot wingspan and a gross takeoff wright of 2700 pounds, also had
eavesdropping equipment. That allowed American operatives to listen up, in
case the Pakistanis caught wind of the secret aircraft spying overhead.