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.