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, and likely even played a role in the 2011 operation that killed infamous terror leader Osama Bin Laden.
Despite the high profile of some of its missions, this drone itself 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 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 entered combat operations 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 — the 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 skill set 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 the death of the terrorist leader.
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 to hide from. The drone seems to be used for reconnaissance, but there are other platforms in the same theater that could do a similar job. One possible explanation for the “Beast of Kandahar’s” presence over the embattled nation, then, may be a suite of electronic warfare systems 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 effected 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 may 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 their border. According to Iran’s claims, which have been dismissed by U.S. Defense officials, they were 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 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,” says former US Navy electronics warfare officer Densmore.
“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,” says Densmore.
Drones like the RQ-170 are often programed to locate a landing strip and come in for a landing when disconnected from their command element, meaning the Iranians may have only needed to jam the signal leading to the RQ-170 and wait for it to come down on its own.
In a bit of theatrics the international community has come to expect from Iran, they declared the unarmed drone’s presence in their airspace to be an overt act of war, and 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 the classified platform over.
It might be an “attritable” aircraft
The United States military has recently placed 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 testing of the Kratos Valkyrie among other platforms, and 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 $6 million, meaning the secretive drone may not be carrying the most advanced tech America has to offer, but may 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 land combat operations this stealth drone seems to be good at. The RQ-170 has been spotted operating out of Guam, and it’s rumored to carry an advanced suite of electo-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 United States 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.