The United States Air Force has been flying the RQ-170 Sentinel over combat zones since 2005, but details about this secretive aircraft are still rather sparse. Developed by the legendary Skunk Works out of Lockheed Martin, the RQ-170 is believed to be a high-altitude and stealthy reconnaissance platform. It likely even played a role in the 2011 operation that killed infamous terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.

Despite the high profile of some of its missions, this drone has maintained a very low profile over the years — and it would be hard to argue that its secrecy isn’t by design. Like the F-117 Nighthawk, another Skunk Works design that first propelled the world into the era of stealth, the RQ-170’s most potent weapon may just be the shadow of uncertainty that surrounds it.

While likely not as stealthy as the larger B-2 Spirit that it resembles, the RQ-170 does have stealth characteristics and is likely covered in radar-absorbent coating, giving it the ability to operate in contested airspace while conducting its secret missions.

The Beast of Kandahar
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The Beast of Kandahar

The RQ-170 Sentinel first combat operations were over Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2009 (or potentially as early as 2007). It didn’t take long for grainy images of the drone to start making their way online, with aviation enthusiasts and experts alike scratching their heads at the flying wing. The high-altitude drone was dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar,” and although the Air Force formally acknowledged its existence (and name) in December of 2009, its nickname stuck.

While not much is known about the tech that can be found beneath the RQ-170’s skin, it’s believed to operate at high altitudes in contested airspace, providing streaming video to commanders elsewhere in the region, offering overwatch to troops on the ground, and potentially even serving as a communications relay for troops and command elements. With its broad skillset and low-observability, the “Beast of Kandahar” was reportedly flying over Osama Bin Laden’s compound as JSOC operators conducted Operation Neptune Spear — the op that led to Bin Laden’s death.

However, questions still remain about just what the RQ-170 really was doing over Afghanistan. While the aircraft seems nominally stealth, the Taliban don’t have radar systems that it would need to hide from. The drone seems to be used for reconnaissance, but there are other platforms in the same theater that could do the same job. Therefore, one possible explanation for the Beast of Kandahar’s presence over the embattled nation may be a suite of electronic warfare systems that it might be carrying on board. Even that theory has left some scratching their heads, however, as the Taliban don’t employ many advanced systems that would be negatively affected by radar or communications jamming.


Iran Slays the Beast

While most Americans have never seen the RQ-170 up close, you might be surprised to know that a number of Iranians have. Back in 2011, images of the secretive RQ-170 appeared on Iranian state television accompanied by claims that Iran had managed to capture the aircraft almost entirely intact.

The drone was apparently operating 140 miles over the Iranian border and it is believed that it might have been keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear efforts. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) claimed to have tracked the RQ-170 as it crossed the Iranian border. According to Iran’s claims, which have been dismissed by U.S. Defense officials, it was then able to “hack” into the drone to gain control over it and bring it down for a landing. While the U.S. maintains that doing so would be extremely unlikely, the fact that the drone appeared on television in one piece seems to suggest there may be some truth to Iran’s claims.