Last week the trade publication Aviation Week revealed what many observers have long suspected—that the U.S. Air Force is testing, and preparing to buy in numbers, a new radar-evading spy drone called the RQ-180.
And now, thanks to an Air Force blunder, we can add an important chapter to the story of the new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s mysterious predecessor. Secret deployments by the roughly decade-old RQ-170 drone to the Pacific in 2009 could offer hints about the intended missions of the more advanced RQ-180, once the latter robot enters full service starting around 2015.
According to reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler, the new RQ-180, built by Northrop Grumman, is a bigger, longer-ranged and stealthier successor to the Lockheed Martin-made RQ-170, which apparently entered service just in time for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The RQ-170 was famously outed in December 2009 after being photographed, years earlier, by a journalist at an airfield in southern Afghanistan.
The flying-wing RQ-170, known by its nickname “Sentinel,” spied on Osama Bin Laden’s compound during the May 2011 raid by Navy SEALs that killed the terrorist leader. In December 2011 a Sentinel crashed on the Iran-Afghanistan border and was seized by Iranian officials for display and study.
There was speculation that the drone had been spying on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile efforts when it went down. Like other Air Force drone types, the RQ-170s are reportedly shared with the Central Intelligence Agency. But the Sentinel’s main operator is the Air Force’s 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, normally based at the highly secure Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.
The satellite-guided RQ-170, with half the RQ-180's estimated 130-foot wingspan, has also flown in two other hot spots that we know about. For starters, from Jan. 15 to Feb. 16 2009, the 30th RS deployed to Guam, America’s main Pacific outpost for long-range bombers and spy planes.
Traveling to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, the 30th RS presumably brought at least one and probably up to three of its Sentinel drones with it. The Air Force normally organizes its UAVs into “orbits” of around three aircraft, allowing one to be airborne over the target area at all times while the others are in transit or maintenance.
The Guam deployment, previously unknown outside the Pentagon, is described in the official history of Air Combat Command, the Air Force headquarters that oversees the 30th RS.
Researcher Joseph Trevithick with the online think tank Globalsecurity.org acquired the official history via a Freedom of Information Act request. The Air Force redacted all the paragraphs related to the RQ-170, but neglected to redact the document’s footnotes, which happen to include fairly detailed information regarding the Sentinel’s whereabouts during 2009.
It’s unclear from the redacted official history exactly what the 30th RS and its Sentinels did in Guam, but it’s worth noting that whenever the Air Force sends bombers or spy planes into the airspace near China, they normally take off from Guam. In November the flying branch sent two B-52s into a new airspace identification zone established by Beijing over islands also claimed by Japan. The B-52s’ flight was a strong statement against China’s unilateral claim on the airspace.
After a month in Guam, the secretive drones presumably returned to Nevada. In May 2009, the French magazine Air & Cosmos published blurry photographs of the RQ-170 taxiing at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. The pictures had been taken in late 2007 but withheld by the photographer. Aviation Week’s Sweetman promptly dubbed the mystery drone the “Beast of Kandahar” and correctly surmised that its mission is reconnaissance.
In August 2009, U.S. Pacific Command issued a “concept of operations” document, or “CONOP,” meant to establish the methods and goals of flying RQ-170s in the Pacific region.
It’s possible the Guam deployment helped provide the data for the CONOP. While the Air Force has decades of experience with drones, the RQ-170 possesses fairly unique stealth attributes and, in mid-2009, was still supposed to be secret. Moreover, most of the Air Force’s UAV operations have taken place over land in the Middle East and Central Asia, overseen by Central Command. Sending the Sentinel to the Pacific four years ago apparently required additional special planning.
In any event, a longer Pacific mission was in the works for the 30th RS and its radar-evading robots. In September 2009, Air Combat Command issued a deployment order sending Sentinels to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, almost certainly to spy on North Korea, which like Iran was building an atomic arsenal and the long-range missiles to use it. The deployment order was accompanied by risk assessments for RQ-170 flights in the Pacific and specifically over the Korean Peninsula.
While impossible to glean from the redacted history, the risks are not hard to guess. Flying spy missions against North Korea would expose the drone to dangerous air defenses. If shot down and captured, as eventually happened in Iran, the UAV would be a propaganda coup and a diplomatic disaster. Not to mention its technology could fall into enemy hands.
The RQ-170s remained at Kunsan through December, with the U.S. Forces Korea headquarters regularly issuing informational bulletins about the deployment. Central Command was next in line to host the stealthy drones. The command issued its deployment planning order on Dec. 3, 2009.
The next day, the Air Force finally copped to the Sentinel’s existence, telling Aviation Week that the new drone met increased demand for intelligence and aligned with a “vision for an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft.”
The Joong Ang newspaper mistakenly claimed the RQ-170s would replace the Air Force U-2 spy planes that had patrolled over the Pacific since the early 1960s. In fact, the flying branch has no firm plans to replace the U-2s, which probably fly much higher and farther than the Sentinels.
The new RQ-180, a larger drone than the RQ-170, might be equal to the U-2 in some ways, however. And with the Sentinel having paved the way, the RQ-180 could play an important role in the Pacific, gathering intel on North Korea and China.