The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) may conduct an experiment by July to help bolster the coverage of Afghanistan, the Pentagon Inspector General said in a new report on Operation Enduring Sentinel, which began on Oct. 1, 2021 shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from that country and nearly 20 years after the start of U.S. combat operations there.

“The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy [OUSD(P)] said that the DoD intends to eventually field a platform with longer loiter time to complement the MQ-9 Reapers currently in use, which can remain in the air for only a limited time after the lengthy transit into Afghanistan and conserving enough fuel for the return flight,” the report said. “OUSD(P) noted that Air Force Research Lab is planning to conduct such an assessment using an experimental platform in support of USCENTCOM requirements, possibly in the third quarter of FY 2023.”

DoD has said that Enduring Sentinel aims to prevent Afghan safe havens from which groups could launch strikes against the United States.

At a March 16 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said that, since the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, “the reduction in collection, analytical resources, and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets means our campaign against Al Qaeda and ISIS Khorasan is challenged; while we can see the broad contours of attack planning, we lack the granularity to see the complete threat picture.”

“ISIS-Khorasan has increased attacks in the region and desires to export those attacks beyond Afghanistan to include the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad,” Kurilla said in his prepared testimony.

In response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) at the hearing, Kurilla said that CENTCOM wants to increase ISR of Afghanistan by investing in “long duration, high altitude, alternative ISR that can go up for days and weeks because, right now, I’m spending 80 percent of my time transiting to the region to be able to collect over the top.”

The MQ-9As have flown to Afghanistan from allied air bases in the Arabian Peninsula. The Air Force has said that it is able to use Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARPs) for MQ-9As on long missions.

In December, 2021, CENTCOM’s director of operation said that the command wanted to bolster its ISR beyond current space assets and the General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper (Defense Daily, Dec. 7, 2021).

“The fact of the matter for U.S. CENTCOM is there’s really nothing else that has the collection capabilities and the unique combination of collection capabilities that the MQ-9 has right now,” then Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexus “Grynch” Grynkewich, CENTCOM’s dirctor of operations, said at the time. “I don’t want to ask for MQ-9s. I want to ask for something that can provide full-motion video, SIGINT [signals intelligence], and whatever else it is you’re looking for. But when you start adding those all up, there really is nothing else. I think we’ll find other environments in the future where we need a persistent collection capability, and whether that comes from a space-based collection capability, some sort of a near space collection capability or other kind of long-range, loitering airborne layer capability, those are going to be critically important.”

Grynkewich is now a lieutenant general and has commanded Air Forces Central since July last year.