A landscape photographer setting up to capture a shot of a perfect Pacific sunrise last week got more than he bargained for when he happened to notice a strange aircraft speeding along in the skies above.
Michael Fugnit said he snapped his single grainy photograph of the mysteriously shaped aerial vehicle on Thursday at about 6:15 a.m. local time, and the image has since caused a bit of a stir in the world of aviation and military observers.
While there are several possibilities for what the unknown craft could be, no one has been able to verify its identity, leaving experts stumped.
In his column “The War Zone” for The Drive, Tyler Rogoway wrote Saturday that Fugnit’s picture was taken from a location that sits right between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, two of the most surveilled bodies of water on the globe and where much military action is seen, particularly on the part of the United States and China.
The craft appears to resemble another mysterious vehicle spotted last year that was believed to be the U.S. military’s RQ-180 Sentinel drone, a “high-altitude, long-endurance, very low-observable” aircraft that is “thought to be in very limited operation at this time as it continues with its clandestine development,” according to Rogoway.
“Flying the aircraft in this area of the world would make sense because it is precisely the type of environment it was designed to operate in, but it could also just be transiting to another location, including back to the United States,” he explained.
Although the RQ-180 is believed to fly out of Nevada’s Area 51 (making this story no less mysterious) and California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Andersen Air Force Base in Guam are also possibilities for where the mysterious aircraft spotted this week could have been headed to or departing from.
However, there’s good reason to believe it could be a similar drone belonging to the Chinese military, as well, as the nation certainly has an interest in closely observing the geographic region and does so routinely.
“Beyond its H-20 stealth bomber program, many stealth drone programs are publically underway, including a concept that is broadly similar to the RQ-180, known as the CH-7 Rainbow,” Rogoway wrote.
“China’s Star Shadow, which has been in development for years, may also have some similarities to the shape we see in the image,” he continued. “Once again, that is one of a number of potential Chinese stealth drones, some of which we know have been in flight testing for years, and there are others that surely remain cloaked in secrecy, that could potentially account for this sighting.”
He also wrote that while “the appearance of Chinese stealthy drones will become commonplace in the region in the years to come,” the sighting “could have been a clandestine operation of one of these systems that has made it at least into an operational testing state. Collecting critical intelligence from a penetrating reconnaissance platform on the countries China has a standing dispute over the South China Sea with does makes sense.”
The chances that the aircraft is a Chinese H-20 stealth bomber or an American B-2 Spirit are also low, as the development of the former is not believed to be complete and the image bears little resemblance to the latter.
Meanwhile, when Rogoway initially published his article on the mysterious craft, radio interceptors and plane trackers had not detected any B-2s in the region.
He notes that the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel is another possibility, as it “has been adapted to work in the maritime domain and it has spent time in Asia,” and that while this “would be an odd place for it to be and the wings don’t look right” it’s still a possibility.
Rogoway added that considering a major military exercise between the U.S., the U.K., India, Japan and Australia wrapped up in the region at the end of August, China would doubtless be interested in observing military assets that would likely have still been in the Philippine Sea at the time.
The U.S., conversely, could easily have been surveilling any Chinese craft in the ocean that were there to observe the military games from afar, as the People’s Liberation Army is wont to do at such times.
Whatever the case may have been, the Philippine military appears to have been spooked by something in the skies that same day, Rogoway noted, although there is a great time discrepancy between the time of an intercept report pertaining to this fact and when Fugnit snapped his photo.
“Local press in the Phillippines has reported on a scramble of fighters on a mystery, unresponsive aerial contact on the same day and around the same time as when the photo was snapped,” Rogoway wrote, citing a report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
He explained that the interception of the aircraft ended roughly three and a half hours after Fugnit captured his picture, but “that doesn’t mean the stealthy aircraft didn’t linger in the area after its picture was taken, as stealthy reconnaissance aircraft are pretty much built to do.”
However, he noted, the altitude was too low to be consistent with a high-altitude, long-endurance drone, and if the craft in the picture were one of our suspected advanced stealth aircraft, it would likely be equipped with the necessary systems to defend itself or evade radar detection.
“So, we have a very intriguing image and a unique series of events and circumstances that surround it,” Rogoway concluded, later adding an update that even after his story went viral, no one was able to definitively identify the craft.
It’s certainly a mystery, but it tells us a lot about just how advanced military surveillance craft appears to be getting in our brave new world.
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