The RQ-170 Sentinel is considered the most mysterious weapon of the United States. It is rare for Americans to see it in real life, but Iranians do.
The US Air Force has been operating the RQ-170 Sentinel UAV in combat zones since 2005, but details on this secret aircraft are still scanty.
Developed by Skunk Works, the famous Lockheed Martin design team, the RQ-170 is believed to be a high-altitude and stealth reconnaissance platform. It is even believed to have played a role in the 2011 campaign, killing notorious terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.
Despite a high track record in a number of missions, the drone itself has been kept in secret for years – and it’s hard to argue that its secrecy was not by design.
As seen in the media leaks, the RQ-170 is a tailless, flying wing design, with pods, presumably for sensors or SATCOMs, built into the upper surface of each wing.
RQ-170 is estimated to have a length of 4.5m (8 ft 7 in), a wingspan of 12m (38 ft), and a height of 1.8m (6 ft). Its takeoff weight is estimated as being greater than the RQ-3 DarkStar’s, which was 3.9 tons (8,500 pounds).
Like the F-117 Nighthawk, another Skunk Works design that first brought the world into the stealth era, the RQ-170’s most powerful weapon may just be a shadow of the uncertainty surrounding it.
Quite similar in appearance to the B-2 Spirit bomber, the RQ-170 has stealthy features and is likely to be covered with a radar-absorbing coating, allowing it to operate in hostile airspace to perform secret missions.
The RQ-170 is powered by a single engine, believed to be the Garrett TFE731 or General Electric TF34 turbofan engine. The UAV is painted medium-gray. According to Aviation Week, the medium-grey color implies a mid-altitude ceiling, unlikely to exceed 15,000 m (50,000 feet) since a higher ceiling would normally be painted darker for best concealment.
In a December 2012 report, journalist David Axe stated that “20 or so” RQ-170s had been built. The “RQ” designation indicates that the RQ-170 Sentinel does not carry weapons.
On the basis of a few publicly released photos of the RQ-170, aviation experts say the UAV is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor and possibly an active electronically scanned array radar mounted in its belly fairing. The two undercarriage fairings over the UAV’s wings may house datalinks and that the belly fairing could be designed for modular payloads, allowing the UAV to be used for strike missions or electronic warfare.
The “Beast of Kandahar“
The RQ-170 Sentinel first entered combat in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2009, or possibly as early as 2007, according to the military magazine Sandboxx. Shaded images of a mysterious drone quickly appeared online, confusing both aviation enthusiasts and professionals alike.
The drone was dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar”. Although the US Air Force officially acknowledged its existence in December 2009 – this moniker remains.
While there’s not much information available about the technology underneath the RQ-170’s shell, it is believed to operate at high altitudes in hostile airspace, providing streaming video for commanders elsewhere in area, providing surveillance and reconnaissance for troops on the ground, and even acting as a communications relay for troops and commanders.
With its diverse ability and low radar reflectivity, the “Beast of Kandahar” is said to flown over the roof of Osama Bin Laden when US military operators launched Operation Neptune Spear – which led to the death of terror leader.
However, the question remains about what the RQ-170 actually did in Afghanistan. Although the aircraft is nominally stealthy, the Taliban did not have a radar system. This drone appears to be used for reconnaissance, but there are other things that could do the same job.
One possible explanation for the presence of the “Beast of Kandahar” in Afghanistan could be an onboard electronic warfare system. Even that theory leaves some unsatisfied, as the Taliban did not use many advanced systems that can be negatively affected by radar or jamming equipment.
Unexpected danger when secrets fall into Iran’s hands
While most Americans have never seen the RQ-170 up close, you may be surprised to learn that some Iranians do.
Back in 2011, images of the secret RQ-170 appeared on Iranian state television, accompanied by a statement that Iran had captured the plane almost completely intact.
The UAV appears to have been operating on the Iranian border and it is believed it may have been used to spy and gather information about Iran’s nuclear effort. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has claimed to tracked the RQ-170 as it crossed their borders.
Iran’s claim was rejected by US defense officials. The Iranians then sought to gain control of the UAV and land it. While the US thinks this was extremely unlikely, but the fact that the US drone has appeared on Iranian television, it seems to suggest that Iran’s claim may have some part of the truth.
The US government denied the incident at first but later admitted the RQ-170 was seized and asked Iran to return it, and of course it was not met.
Losing the world’s most advanced reconnaissance drone was clearly a major embarrassment for the United States, but the real danger lies in: Some of the most advanced stealth technologies have fallen into the hands of Iran.
In 1999, an American F-117 stealth fighter was shot down in Serbia. That was considered a great loss, but with the RQ-170 the damage was much greater because it was almost intact.
The RQ-170 benefits not only Iran but also other potential US adversaries. Due to its long defense relationship with North Korea and Russia, it is likely that its confidential information will also be shared with both countries, so that they can develop solutions to deal with US stealth technology, and build their own stealth aircraft.
China is believed to have also reaped the benefits of access to and research into the RQ-170. Within five years of the incident, Beijing was testing domestic stealth drones (Caihong-7 CH-7). And surprisingly, it is very similar to the US UAV.
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