Questions raised by full text of USAF RQ-170 statement

As reported first on Ares and later here, the US Air Force has confirmed the existence of a stealthy unmanned aircraft system called the RQ-170.

Below is the full text of the statement emailed to journalists on Friday evening.



The United States Air Force is developing a stealthyunmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide reconnaissance and surveillancesupport to forward deployed Combat Forces. The RQ-170 Sentinel, a low observable UAS, was built by LockheedMartin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP). The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M.Gates’ request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance(ISR) support to the Combatant Commanders and AF Chief of Staff General NortonSchwartz’s vision for an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft.  The RQ-170 is flown by Air Combat command(ACC), 432d Wing at Creech AFB, NV, 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, NV.



Take a good look at the first sentence. Note the use of the term “isdeveloping”. Given the ample photograph evidence of the presumed RQ-170accumulated to date, one might assume the term “has developed” would bemore appropriate. It suggests, of course, the aircraft remains in its developmental stage. Both the RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-1 Predator were deployed before they were fully developed, so that’s not a huge surprise.

The statement also leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Why was a stealthy UAS developed and apparently deployed to Afghanistan in secret? What advantage does a steathy UAS provide in a war against an insurgent force lacking a radar-based air defense system? For that matter, can we be absolutely certain that the RQ-170 is the same as the UAV that has appeared in at least three online photos?

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14 Responses to Questions raised by full text of USAF RQ-170 statement

  1. nicolae 7 December, 2009 at 12:56 am #

    i still think it’s flying over Iran, wouldn’t it be easier to build more Predators/Reapers?

  2. Mark Brueschke 7 December, 2009 at 1:58 am #

    It would be easier to build more Predators and Reapers, but this thing looks stealthy and is being operated (according to the USAF) by a squadron with a stealth tradition, so my question is, how stealthy are MQ-1s?

  3. John Hill 7 December, 2009 at 5:17 am #

    Aren’t the Predators & Reapers using small turbo props. So perhaps the USAF is trying to bring a Jet-powered UAV online.

  4. Grunty 7 December, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    Developing and deployment is possible. Imagine that the USAF awarded Lockheed Martin Skunk Works a contract to quickly develop RQ-170 Sentinel more than a few years back, what then may have followed was a period of in-country flight testing and then the opportunity to continue the next phase of testing in a proper operational environment. Where better than Afghanistan with close proximity to other countries like Iran as well as the opportunity to use the Sentinel alongside US and allied forces involved in actual combat operations. And then on top of that, the USAF can get some operational experience of testing of a stealthy jet-powered UAS, integrating it into the battlespace, with a similar design to UCAVs that could eventually be the norm in the service’s arsenal in the future. Even if it doesn’t lead to the USAF buying production RQ-170 Sentinels in numbers, they and Lockheed Martin should learn alot using this UAS design in Afghanistan that should stand them in good stead for future programmes.

  5. EG 7 December, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    This bird is just too big for straight recon, And the configuration does not lend itself to a high endurance mission.

    -Reposted from an earlier comment-

    I don’t completely buy the R designation.

    The way the gear retracts leaves room for a nice deep internal bay eliminating need for external storage.

    And bulges for sensors can just as easily accomodate designator systems.

    If it was wasn’t for the depth of the fuselage, the way the gear retracts and the heftyness of the gear itself, I could buy it.

    I am just a simple mechanic, More educated analysis would be welcome.

  6. Herkeng130 7 December, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    EG, Too big for recon? I guess you have never seen the RC-135s or hell even the U-2s? What about its much larger brother the Global Hawk…she isn’t recon? These are much larger than this bird. I am not saying she is or is not strictly a recon bird but you have no way of knowing just by looking at the two horrible photos that have been released. About the “is developing” portion of this article… Remember, the E-8 was in development and was still in development long after but was pushed into service for the original gulf war.

  7. Herkeng130 7 December, 2009 at 6:28 pm #

    So tell me Stephen,

    Did you see this thing depicted on the walls or in little models durring your visit to Skunk Works out in Palmdale?

  8. eg 7 December, 2009 at 7:08 pm #

    Too big for recon? No at all. Too big used as a single mission platform? You betchya! This bird is big because it needs to carry mission payloads internally.

    The photo’s published here earlier show an awfully stout gear for just a recon payload. Additionally, assuming that most of the electonic gear is palletized, I would assume that apllerized loads would be designed around a standard bay and CG range.
    So, why would the nose gear retract sideways? The main mounts could also retract sideways. Which would make the design exercise easier as far gear geometry. The whole set up is to maintain an internal bay.
    I am guessing, but who the heck would overbuild a landing gear like that otherwise? Even if it was for CVN ops, there are other alternatives out there.

  9. LookAtThat 7 December, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    Look at the unit patch of the squadron operating this thing and tell me what you think. I see the claws of the bird are roughly on Iran and China. Now go figure out the mission…

  10. SMSgt Mac 8 December, 2009 at 6:52 am #

    It is easy enough to determine if the pics you mention all show the same bird or not. Place them side by side and look at them. I’ve only seen two and they clearly look like the same bird to me. The planform is distinctive; one just needs to not let their imagination run away with them in looking at it. (Although some of the comments about how the bird looks here and elsewhere only reinforces what I’ve heard about the unreliability of eyewitness reports).

    As to ‘size’, it doesn’t look very big at all, really. The one pic with the taxiway light behind it pretty much bounds the upper limit. Way smaller than most fighters, I’d guess.

    Some have commented on the depth of the center section as perhaps indicating a weapons bay, but a better explanation would be that depth is needed for embedding the gear, and masking engine for observability purposes and/or perhaps more fuel load (it takes beaucoup fuel to fly high and loiter long), and sensor packages can be pretty big.

    As to its utility in the ‘Stan, while the Taliban and Al Qaeda may not have radars, their ‘friends’ (and some of our so-called Allies) do. It’s kind’a hard for the neighbors with the radar next door to tip off the local jihadis that there’s someone over their heads when the neighbor next door can’t see us – we don’t have to overfly elsewhere to exploit any low observability. As a bonus, we get to see how the neighbor operates his assets over time.

    Hey! This speculating on a program I know nothing about (nor need to know) IS fun. I now see why some people can’t resist. Now look at this watch – this watch -this watch….. there are NO aliens involved,
    there are no aliens involved
    there are no aliens……………

  11. Grunty 8 December, 2009 at 9:38 pm #

    There has been one website that has suggested the RQ-170 Sentinel is a similar size to the Grob G115 Tutor based on purported eyewitness reports from British personnel located at Kandahar. That’d give it a length of around 7 ft and a wingspan of about 32 ft, which would make sense given the size of the landing gear. It just doesn’t look as big from the publicly available photos as some other reports that I have read have suggested.

  12. Herkeng130 8 December, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    It is impossible, unless you know something that the rest of us do not for you to say that this is anything other then what they say it. There is no proof of a weapons bay, no proof that this is a multi-mission platform. I am not saying it isn’t, I am saying that you are only speculating. We have no way of knowing. Just because she has a hump on the upper side of the fuselage above the wings doesn’t even imply that that is where the “sensors” are stored, couldn’t this be where the engines are? Could this be a multi-mission aircraft? Yes. Could it be a weapons platform? Yes…but by looking at these not so clear photos, you and the rest of us (without knowing the program deeper) have no way of knowing. Saying that it is too big for a single platform is just silly. Hell, you have no idea how big this thing is.
    I am working on an aircraft right now that is a sensors/ Surveillance platform and well, we are a rather large aircraft.

    Yes the gears are robust but look at the nose door. It sticks down way too far and would not offer the nose gear to dampen on a less than stellar landing on a carrier. (That is of course if that nose door does not get sucked up my hydraulics and is unpressurized in the photo b but she looks down or open in the flying photo as well)
    You build around a gear that you have available to you without causing much attention to yourself on an aircraft like this…use what you have, They just might have had these fat F-14 like gear hanging around. But you are right… they would not put a gear like this on an aircraft that weighs as little as a MQ-9…but she also may be holding a mass load of sensors…or fuel.

  13. eg 9 December, 2009 at 5:14 pm #

    “I am saying that you are only speculating”
    Yes sir, it is nothing more than that. Kinda fun though ain’t it?

  14. Adult Chatroulette 22 April, 2010 at 1:44 am #

    Chatroulette has taken me by suprise. An idea from the 90′s has taken off again. It blows my mind.

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