What in the World Is NASA’s Research Plane Doing at a Military Base in Africa?

WB-57 could be making maps for commandos


Digital Globe satellite imagery of the U.S. military base at Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, dated Sept. 20, depicts NASA’s WB-57 high-altitude aircraft on the recently-expanded auxiliary operations apron.

The question is—why? What purpose does a scientific research plane have in visiting America’s main military outpost in Africa? One possible answer is … making maps for commando raids.

The B-57 is actually a variant of the British Canberra bomber design from the 1950s. The U.S. Air Force operated RB-57s for reconnaissance missions prior to the arrival of the U-2 spy plane in the 1960s. NASA’s WB-57 is actually an old RB-57 with significant updates.

For many years, the space agency operated two WB-57s from Ellington Field in Texas. In 2011, NASA took a third copy—serial number 63–13259—out of storage from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and handed it over to the Sierra Nevada Corporation in Colorado for an overhaul. The aircraft would later enter service under the designation NASA 927.

Sierra Nevada stripped the WB-57 down to the bare bones, rebuilt it to flying condition and sent it back into the air for tests in July 2013. However, it wasn’t until early January that the folks over at NASA’s Johnson Space Center updated their Website to suggest the aircraft had joined NASA 926 and NASA 928 at Ellington.

Above—the WB-57 in Djibouti in September. Digital Globe imagery. At top—a WB-57. Photo via Wikipedia

While very few reported the story, it’s not difficult to see why NASA added another aircraft to its inventory. This 70-year-old plane has a 122-foot wingspan, can fly to altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet and cover a distance of 2,500 nautical miles—specs similar to the U-2.

In some ways, the WB-57 still outperforms its successor spy plane. With a total payload capacity of 9,700 pounds, the former Canberra can carry almost double the weight that a U-2 can.

Like the U-2, the WB-57 spreads payloads across several areas—the belly, nosecone, wing pods and tail cone, among other places. With multiple payload mounting points, the WB-57 can act as a test-bed for multiple technologies at one time—depending on the aircraft’s center of gravity.

The maximum weight of the largest payload area, on the fuselage, is around 4,000 pounds. However, larger payloads can go on rails that attach directly to the aircraft, according to NASA’s 2010 WB-57 handbook. This arrangement supports a maximum weight of 5,000 pounds.

It’s this section of the aircraft that has carried some of the most well-known equipment, including the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node. The BACN, which first flew at Miramar in California in 2005, is a kind of universal translator for the military’s myriad radio systems, and helps planes and troops on the ground talk to each other.

A WB-57 and an E-11 in Kandahar in 2011. Digital Globe imagery

The BACN tested well on the aircraft and the Air Force subsequently installed the module on at least four Bombardier Global Express E-11 business jets, as well as on three EQ-4 Global Hawk drones. Congress has requisitioned funds to keep all of them flying until June 2015.

In a rare satellite shot from January 2011, the WB-57 makes an appearance at southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar airfield parked on the ramp next to an E-11A. The aircraft may have been taking turns over Afghanistan, providing communication support to troops in the field along with the BACN-fitted Global Hawks flying from Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates.

Of course, that may not be the only explanation. Around the same time, the fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was also testing the High-Altitude LIDAR Operational Experiment—or HALOE—on NASA’s high flyer. LIDAR, or “light detection and ranging,” is a method of remote sensing that uses light pulses to model various environments.

HALOE data allowed scientists to create high-resolution 3-D maps of parts of Afghanistan. In 2010, the sensor reportedly surveyed 70,000 square kilometers, or approximately 10 percent of the country.

The Air Force Research Laboratory reports the team flew 140 sorties comprising 550 flight hours, while collecting data at 20-centimeter resolution. On at least 200 occasions, HALOE teams handed over data to the military so it could plan raids on terror suspects or other operations.

While impressive, the system does have certain limitations. For example, it produces a terabyte of data for every hour of use. It can take days or weeks to analyze all that information.

Data overload notwithstanding, HALOE is still leaps and bounds better than what the military had before. DARPA director Arati Prabhakar has said that the sensor could have mapped 50 percent of Afghanistan in 90 days, far faster than the years it would have taken with most traditional methods.

HALOE has been so effective that there are now rumors that the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for building and launching America’s spy satellites, may try to build and launch a satellite with the same sensor on board. That’s another reason the WB-57 is so important. High-altitude aircraft can provide a proof of concept for satellite sensors prior to sending them into space.

A WB-57 at Ellington Field in October 2013. Digital Globe imagery

Beyond military uses, the WB-57 often supports various scientific missions. These include everything from understanding the origins of hurricanes and poor air quality to identifying the spectral signatures of substances.

In 2007, NASA deployed the aircraft with a high-tech infrared spectrometer to help identify mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The aircraft spent two months in Kandahar and performed 218 flights capturing data for more than 400,000 square kilometers—70 percent of the country.

And it appears scientists are still sifting through all that data. Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey finally released 60 additional mineral maps to support Afghanistan’s economic development.

Of course, those maps may not matter much if the security situation keeps deteriorating. If it’s any indicator, China’s state-owned mining behemoth MCC, which won the rights to the Mes Aynak copper mine south of Kabul, is trying to renegotiate the terms of its $3-billion deal. And China’s companies typically have a higher risk tolerance than many other firms.

With such a range of technologies on hand, when we see a WB-57 in Djibouti, we have to wonder why it’s there. A few public sources provide some hints. We know from the Next-Generation Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Conference in Virginia in June that the HALOE sensor had already begun mapping territory for U.S. Africa Command.

According to the presentation by the Army’s Geospatial Center, the sensor mapped more than 13,500 square kilometers in July and August 2013. The question remains whether a WB-57 or a HALOE equipped business jet did the mapping.

A WB-57 on Djibouti’s Axillary apron in July. Flickr user Pervez 183A photo

Some circumstantial evidence however points to the WB-57. A photographer spotted the former Canberra in Djibouti as early as July 22. And it’s possible the aircraft may have deployed to the base much earlier. DARPA director Prabhakar told Congress earlier this year that HALOE would redeploy following a six-month maintenance and training period beginning in January. While this timeline matches up well with our first WB-57 sighting, it’s still no confirmation.

Assuming the sensor is on board, it may mean the U.S. is mapping more urban environments to create 3-D maps to help battle planners. Such mapping could prove useful to American commandos fighting groups like Somalia’s Al Shabab or Boko Haram in Nigeria.

On the other hand, if the Pentagon is planning for more missions in Africa’s jungles, other sensors may be more useful.

Over the last decade, the Air Force has been developing the Spectral Infrared Imaging Technology Testbed—and has tested it on a WB-57. The SPIRITT’s primary mission is to detect and identify camouflaged, concealed and deceptive targets based on their spectral signature.

Considering the topography in many parts of Africa, SPIRITT may be just the tool to penetrate jungle foliage and locate targets in say, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic.