Mysterious Military Spy Plane Has Been Flying Circles Over Seattle For Days

Nobody seems to know who specifically the aircraft belongs to or what it’s up to, but based on its configuration, its capabilities are pretty clear.

By Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick

very unique USAF surveillance aircraft has been flying highly defined circles over Seattle and its various suburbs for nine days now. Nobody at the DoD seems to know who the aircraft belongs to or what exactly it is doing flying so many missions over the Seattle area. But based on its visibly exotic configuration, and information collected by open source flight tracking websites, we can get a good idea of its capabilities and guess as to what it’s up to.

The aircraft, which goes by the callsign “SPUD21” and wears a nondescript flat gray paint job with the only visible markings being a USAF serial on its tail, is a CASA CN-235-300 transport aircraft that has been extensively modified for the surveillance mission. You can see more pictures of the aircraft here.

SPUD21 has flown roughly a dozen patrols over the Seattle area since arriving there on July 24th. The aircraft still remains at Boeing Field at the time of publishing.

It is covered in a dizzying array of blisters, protrusions, humps and bumps. These include missile approach warning detectors and large fairings on its empennage for buckets of forward-firing decoy flares, as well as both microwave—the dome antenna behind the wing and flat antenna modification in front of the wing—and ultra high-frequency satellite communications—the platter-like antenna behind the dome antenna. A communications intelligence suite also appears to be installed on the aircraft, with the antenna farm on the bottom of its fuselage being a clear indication of such a capability.

But what’s most interesting is the aircraft’s apparent visual intelligence gathering installation. It is placed in a fixed position, on the left side of the aircraft, below the plane’s forward emergency door. The rectangle structure has a sliding door that covers the system’s sensors when not in use.

On the lower end of the capabilities spectrum, the system installed could be similar to the DB110 reconnaissance system, which can provide very high fidelity imagery of a target area from standoff “slant” ranges. The system, which is popular among F-16 operators in a podded version, can be acquired in varying configurations. Some have multi-spectral fusion capability, where electro-optical and infrared imagery is combined to bring out unique details that neither can see alone. An additional wider angle camera is also available as well, along with an assortment of data-link options that can send the system’s imagery to analysts and “customers” on the ground for rapid exploitation. In this case, the analysts could fly inside the aircraft, eliminating the requirement—or at least the outright need—for such a feature.

On the higher end of the capability spectrum, the aperture could be filled with a wide area aerial surveillance (WAAS) camera system that can view a large area—the size of a town—continuously at one time. This technology, which allows for tagging of vehicles and other moving objects, and can even be used retroactively to trace someone’s movements over time, is among the biggest surveillance game-changers of our time. You can read all about how it works and its great potential to change everything from how we survey the battlefield to how we solve crimes here at home in this past feature.

WAAS camera systems have rapidly evolved over the last decade and have gone from the battlefield to the commercial market here at home. They also now come in all different sizes and capability classes—as well as a variety of interesting sounding names to go with them such as “Gorgon Stare,” “Hawkeye” and “ARGUS” to name a few. In fact, WAAS payloads, which were once the domain of larger aircraft like the  MQ-9 Reaper drone and King Air twin turboprop, are now deployable on small tactical drones, such as the “Red Kite” sensor mounted on RQ-21 Blackjack used by Insitu, a Pacific Northwest company that is now owned by Boeing.

Some WAAS sensors require the aircraft to fly tight overhead orbits, while others work at a slant angle in relation to the ground. Considering the mounting location and aperture size on the CN-235 in question, this kind of “slant” setup would likely be the case. Also, the counterclockwise orbits the aircraft flies, between roughly six and twelve miles across, at altitudes from 17,000 to 22,000 feet, also indicate such a setup.

A sampling of tracks from SPUD21 missions around the Seattle area.

Above all else, these types of surveillance systems are especially good at capturing and monitoring so called “patterns of life” over and around a target area. This is an especially useful tool when collecting intelligence on an enemy target or group of targets over time and can open up new possibilities when it comes to the  process of finding, fixing and finishing the enemy.

Simply put, instead of recording a snapshot in time such as what a satellite can furnish, persistent airborne surveillance sensors capture massive amounts of exploitable information over hours and days. So if a picture is akin to a thousand words, this persistent type of wide area aerial surveillance is equivalent to an entire novel or even a series of novels.

When paired with communications intelligence gathering, such as intercepting radio communications and mobile and satellite phone chatter, a high fidelity “picture” of a targeted area and how specific targets in that area operate can be compiled in a relatively short period of time, all using a single relatively economical asset. Also, the aircraft’s extensive communications suite can take this information, including streaming video, and send it to a command center around the world or relay it to regional ground stations. As such, it can likely provide high-fidelity overwatch of ongoing special operations mission, and relay that video and/or audio to commanders in real time.

Now that we have at least some idea of what this aircraft is likely capable of, the big question is what is it doing over Seattle and its suburbs? And maybe even more important—who is operating it? …

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This article (This Mysterious Military Spy Plane Has Been Flying Circles Over Seattle For Days) was originally published on The Drive and syndicated by The Event Chronicle

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