Introducing the RQ-170 Wraith

Secretive drone has awesome nickname


by DAVID AXE

The U.S. Air Force assigns official names to its warplanes—and they’re sometimes pretty lame. A-10 Thunderbolt II. F-16 Fighting Falcon. B-52 Stratofortress. B-1 Lancer.

Airmen inevitably give the planes unofficial nicknames that are way awesomer. A-10 Warthog. F-16 Viper. B-52 Buff. B-1 Bone.

Now, four years after its public unveiling, we’ve confirmed the nickname of the secretive, radar-evading RQ-170 Sentinel drone that has snooped on Iran, North Korea and China and helped Navy SEALs find and kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

It’s the RQ-170 Wraith. A wraith is a ghost. It’s a fitting name considering the Lockheed Martin-made drone’s ability to evade radar detection, thanks to its flying wing shape and, apparently, special radiation-absorbing coatings.

The RQ-170 is the result of a crash program in the early 2000s to finally restore the Air Force’s ability to spy inside the borders of heavily armed enemies. The Mach-3 SR-71 Blackbird manned recon plane had performed that role from the 1960s until its retirement in the late 1990s.

Lockheed built an estimated 20 or 30 RQ-170s and the Air Force assigned them to the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at the remote Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. RQ-170s, presumably fitted with cameras and radars, were spotted flying over Iraq during the build-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

At top —RQ-170 in Afghanistan. Via SUAS News. At right — RQ-170. Via Wired

The drones continued on to Afghanistan and were photographed several times starting in 2007 by journalists at NATO’s Kandahar Air Field in the country’s south. In 2009, the 30th Recon Squadron took its RQ-170s on a tour of America’s main Pacific bases, including a stopover in South Korea.

The Air Force copped the spy ‘bot’s existence in December 2009.

In 2010, the stealth drones were at Al Dhafra, the sprawling air base the U.S. leases from the United Arab Emirates for spy flights over Iran. When Navy SEALs raided Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in May 2011, an RQ-170 was overhead.

And in December 2011, one of the drones crashed on the Afghanistan-Iran border, presumably while surveilling Iranian targets—possibly including the country’s nuclear program. The wreckage was seized by Iranian agents and put on display for propaganda purposes. Tehran later claimed it could copy the drone’s technology.

The satellite-controlled RQ-170s have been fairly silent since the crash. There have been no further spottings and the Air Force has not provided more information on the drones’ deployments. According to Aviation Week reporters Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman, the Air Force is testing a bigger, stealthier RQ-180 drone, made by Northrop Grumman, to eventually replace the RQ-170.

But for now the RQ-170s supposedly remain active. To find out more, we used the federal Freedom of Information Act to acquire Air Force Air Combat Command’s official annual history for 2010.

While heavily redacted, the history does include a telling footnote. In January 2010, Air Combat Command circulated a document entitled “RQ-170 Sentinel ‘Wraith’ Capabilities Briefing.” It’s the only official mention we’ve seen of the drone’s nickname.

Desert Prowler patch. Via The Living Moon

The moniker has certainly been hinted at. The RQ-170 was apparently part of the classified Desert Prowler reconnaissance program. The uniform patch for Desert Prowler included the image of a wraith, clearly lifted from an Insane Clown Posse album cover.

We asked the Air Force to confirm the nickname but the flying branch ignored us. A quick Google search led us to the Website of Gannet International, a Washington, D.C.-area drone consultancy. The site includes a biography for Gannet member Bruce Black, a retired Air Force officer whose flight experience includes “more than 4,000 hours in the T-37 as an instructor pilot, the C-130, the MQ-1 Predator and the RQ-170 Wraith.”

We phoned Gannet for confirmation. Black wasn’t immediately available for comment. We’re hoping to hear from him soon—and we’ll update the story when we do.

Not that any of this really matters. It’s just cool.