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
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.
“Those jamming capabilities exist, and a lot of them are not as new as we would like to imagine,” former U.S. Navy electronics warfare officer Densmore says.
“Anything that has a sensor, that takes communications links – as does the RQ-170, which has two, one for the satellite, and the other is line-of-sight with the ground control station – all it takes is disrupting that,” he adds.
Drones like the RQ-170 are often programmed to locate a landing strip and come in for a landing when disconnected from their command element. This means the Iranians might have only needed to jam the signal leading to the RQ-170 and waited for it to come down on its own.
In a bit of theatrics, which the international community has come to expect from Iran, it declared the unarmed drone’s presence in their airspace to be an overt act of war. It featured images of the aircraft in state-sanctioned propaganda painting the United States as the aggressor in the Middle East.
According to Iran, both the Russians and the Chinese expressed interest in looking over the classified platform.
It Might Be an “Attritable” Aircraft
The United States military has recently placed a larger emphasis on the idea of “attritable” drones — or drones that are low cost and, as a result, relatively expendable. This concept has led to the testing of the Kratos Valkyrie among other platforms. Some contend that the concept may extend to the RQ-170.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the per-unit cost of the RQ-170 may only be a paltry six million, meaning the secretive drone may not be carrying the most advanced tech America has to offer, but instead be used as a high-capability, low-cost platform. If the drone was actively transmitting data or video back to American commanders while flying in Iranian airspace, and was using off-the-shelf technology, it makes it seem much more likely that the Iranians would have been able to spot and jam the aircraft.
Because so much about the RQ-170 remains classified, it’s difficult to say whether this sneaky drone represents the top-of-the-line technology in America’s arsenal or just some gear from the top shelf of radio shack. Either way, the drone seems to have proven valuable in the skies over the Middle East.
The Stealth Drone We Need Over the South China Sea?
It’s not just at land combat operations that this stealth drone seems to be good. The RQ-170 has been spotted operating out of Guam. It’s rumored to be carrying an advanced suite of electro-optical sensors and a highly sensitive AESA-based synthetic aperture radar that may make the aircraft very well suited for combat operations on the high seas.
With tensions growing between the U.S. Navy and China’s massive Pacific military apparatus, the RQ-170 could become an invaluable asset in staving off or potentially winning a conflict in the South China Sea. In this era of over-the-horizon engagements, a fleet of highly specialized, high altitude stealth drones could allow the U.S. Navy to spot any threats long before they manifest on radar screens.
This article was written by Alex Hollings and originally published on Sandboxx.