Crash In Iraq Helps Unmask Secretive Ultra-Quiet Special Operations Drone Program

Beyond details about its endurance, there are very limited specifics about the U.S. military’s LEAP derivative and its configuration. An artist’s conception that AFRL released in 2019 shows a substantially different planform with no traditional cockpit and an even longer and more slender wing than is seen on a typical Sinus. It also has no visible landing gear suggesting the LEAP design has retractable undercarriage or other means of recovery, unlike the Sinus.

“The Air Force research laboratory (AFRL) has demonstrated the suitability of Pipistrel light aircraft for SOCOM, installing sensors to collect full motion video, lidar [light detection and ranging] and signals intelligence with many units already deployed and operating around the globe,” Pipistrel’s subsidiary in the United States, Pipistrel-USA, disclosed last year. LIDAR provides a laser imaging capability that can also reveal objects that might be buried at certain depths beneath the ground, such as improvised explosive devices or weapons caches. 

Pipistrel is also now marketing an unmanned derivative of its Surveyor aircraft, which is related to the Sinus design, for military use. The company says this drone can fly at altitudes up to 30,000, remain aloft for up to 30 hours, and cover a total distance up to nearly 2,800 miles, depending on payload, altitude, mission profile, and other factors.

SOCOM would not provide any details about what unit or units are operating these drones or how many it has in inventory. The official accident report identified AFSOC as the “owning MAJCOM [major command]” for the LEAP drone and Hurlburt Field in Florida as the “owning base.” Interestingly, however, it said that the “owning service” for the associated ground control station was an “Other US Govt Agency (Federal, State or Local).” The term “other government agency,” often abbreviated OGA, is typically used by elements of the U.S. military to refer to entities outside of the Department of Defense, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Reports over the years have provided significant evidence of a very close working relationship between JSOC, and units tasked with supporting its operations, and the CIA, especially when it comes to unmanned aircraft. In addition, it is known that highly secretive SOCOM aviation elements have supported JSOC operations from Erbil in the past.

It’s not clear exactly where the LEAP aircraft that crashed last year had been flying before the mishap, though the accident report says that it had completed an orbit lasting between 7 and 10 hours. The operator had asked about retasking the drone to another area before the decision was made to bring it back to Erbil. It’s also unclear if LEAP drones have or may still be operating from any other locations in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world.

It’s also not entirely clear how long JSOC has been flying the LEAP drones, or any manned, unmanned, or pilot-optional predecessors based on Pipistrels designs. Despite AFRL’s press release talking about fielding the unmanned aircraft in 2020, the mishap report says that the example that crashed in Iraq had been modified in January 2019, then performed five test and checkout flights at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and then subsequently deployed to Erbil in March of that year.

In May 2020, Pipistrel-USA revealed in an edition of its official company newsletter that contractors had been operating unmanned Surveyor aircraft in support of SOCOM since 2013. This public disclosure was made, in part, in response to uncertainty about SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program, which is seeking a manned light attack aircraft to replace Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) U-28A Dracos, and SOCOM’s interest in lower-cost alternatives to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper.

“Budget constraints in the armed overwatch program have opened the way for evaluation of different lower-cost platforms,” Pipistrel-USA’s newsletter read. “On 13th of May as part of the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference where Colonel Melissa Johnson, the program executive officer for fixed wing aircraft acquisition, showed a picture of an operational Pipistrel Surveyor aircraft on a presentation slide adjacent to the Gray Eagle and Reaper aircraft. As part of the presentation, Johnson told the audience of industry attendees that SOCOM is actively seeking new, low-cost alternatives to the MQ-1 and MQ-9 for long endurance surveillance missions. We beleive [sic] this is the first public acknowledgement of the Pipistrel surveyor program existence by SOCOM.”

From a budgetary perspective, the LEAP aircraft definitely appears to present a lower-cost alternative to existing unmanned aircraft. In March, the Air Force announced it had awarded General Atomics a contract to build a single MQ-9 for the U.K. Ministry of Defense at a cost of nearly $13 million as part of a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) arrangement. That figure also included various sensors, but it’s not clear if any other ancillary costs might have been factored in. Still, that price point is nearly four times the stated value of the LEAP aircraft that smashed into the runway at Erbil.

With all this in mind, it’s also possible, if not plausible that the drone that AFRL described last year as the Ultra LEAP is an improved variant or derivative of prior unmanned Pipistrels that JSOC has been using for years now.

Regardless, based on what we know about this program, overall, it’s not hard to see why JSOC, as well as other “OGAs,” would be interested in this drone. A highly efficient unmanned aircraft able to loiter over a particular area for a protracted period of time, but also with a low acoustic signature and a planform less likely to arouse suspicion if it is detected, offers clear benefits, especially for monitoring the activities of specific individuals or small groups and helping to establish so-called “patterns of life.” Pictures and videos of more traditional drones, such as MQ-9 Reapers, routinely appear on social media, showing that it is relatively easy to identify those aircraft, particularly when they have to fly at lower altitudes.

“They are very quiet, more that [sic; than] 50% quieter than a normal small aircraft,” Pipistrel says in its own brochure for the unmanned version of the Surveyor. “In the air, they look like an inconspicuous sport/recreational aircraft and they are not treated suspiciously.”

“They can be easily dismantled in less than 15 minutes and stored in a dedicated trailer,” that document adds. “Therefore, a hangar is not needed, and a regular vehicle can tow the aircraft in the trailer, no special transport is needed.”

This would also make it easy to deploy and operate these drones very discreetly, even from austere locations with limited infrastructure. “They can take-off and land on grass or unprepared surfaces, not just hard runways,” the unmanned Surveyor brochure also notes.

This is hardly the first time the U.S. military, as well as the CIA, has investigated similar capabilities. The LEAP aircraft, as it is understood now, sounds very much like a spiritual successor to the Vietnam War-era YO-3A Quiet Star and the RG-8A Condor that flew during the latter stages of the Cold War. These were manned aircraft designed with a particular focus on extremely low acoustic signatures.