RQ-170 not intended to replace Predators and Reapers

Okay, no more MQ-X talk about the RQ-170 Sentinel.

I interviewed USAF Col Eric Mathewson this morning after he spoke on a panel for an Army unmanned aircraft system (UAS) conference. Mathewson is the USAF’s director of the UAS task force. His job is to bet the ball rolling on the MQ-X program, which could start replacing Predators and Reapers in a few years with a more automated and flexible platform.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) has unveiled a stealthy jet-powered UAS called Avenger in anticipation of an MQ-X requirement. The RQ-170 also is a stealthy jet-powered UAV. So it seems fair to ask Mathewson if MQ-X is really necessary if the RQ-170 can do the job.

Surprisingly, Mathewson answered my question very clearly. Although he couldn’t speak about the RQ-170′s abilities, the aircraft is “different” than what the USAF desires for a next-generation platform. “MQ-X is completely separate from RQ-170,” he said. For one thing, the USAF isn’t sure how much stealth it needs for MQ-X.

The USAF isn’t even sure yet if MQ-X should be powered by a jet or a turboprop, he said. That detail will be decided in the year-long analysis of alternatives that is set to begin soon. Mathewson openly entertained the idea of developing an aircraft that could swap out jet and turboprop engines.

But … is that even possible? I asked.


“I don’t know. I’m not engineer. You ask me, and I say we can do anything. But you have to push the envelope,” Mathewson said.

Back on the RQ-170, something about the revelation of a secretly-developed aircraft turns adults into school kids, yours truly included. “Isn’t it cool?” Mathewson asked.

I agreed. But I noted it would be even cooler if the USAF would release a clear photo of the Sentinel. All we have in the public domain are grainy shots taken from a distance, like a tabloid shot of a celebrity on holiday with their children.

“Have you asked public affairs?” he suggested.


“What did they say?”


Alas, Mathewson either couldn’t help, or wasn’t inclined. On a hunch, I sent an email to the USAF press desk, re-submitting my request for a publishable photo of the Sentinel.

More disappointment.

“At this time the AF is not releasing any photography of the RQ-170,” came the quick reply by email.

Oh, well. Maybe next week.

Meanwhile, check out Secret Defense blog’s latest post (Google translated version). The author asks whether Lockheed’s designers may have been by the Horton Ho229. It seems highly implausible to me, but worth a read.


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9 Responses to RQ-170 not intended to replace Predators and Reapers

  1. mike j 10 December, 2009 at 6:45 pm #


    About those “grainy shots taken from a distance”- does anyone have the original images those were pulled from? I’m not a conspiracy nut, but it’s a little funny that the only images we’ve seen are about as stripped of context as they can get. Maybe those are the (non)official publicity photos?

  2. John S 10 December, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    “[Secret Defense blog] asks whether Lockheed’s designers may have been [influenced] by the Horton Ho229. It seems highly implausible to me, but worth a read. ”

    Inspired, no doubt, by the recent National Geographic Channel program where Northrop Grumman employees built a replica Horten 229 and tested it on their radar test range.


  3. Josh S 11 December, 2009 at 4:11 am #

    “But … is that even possible? I asked.

    “I don’t know. I’m not engineer. You ask me, and I say we can do anything. But you have to push the envelope,” Mathewson said.”

    And people wonder why the USAF is essentially broke? This clearly shows the lack of technical expertise present in AF leadership. Too many bow at the alter of technology but lack any actual understanding of the technologies limitation.

    Who could dream this stuff up?

  4. Drop Bear 11 December, 2009 at 3:41 pm #


    A picture that looks like the drawing that started it all. Have a look because there is alot of surrounding detail in the picture.

  5. Dave 11 December, 2009 at 5:20 pm #

    It’s kinda cool that it was developed in secret… but you know me, unless it’s stealthy, can cruise at 1.8 Mach and has the RCS of a ball bearing and is flown by a dude- I can’t gush about it (it’s either that or unless its a Super Hornet).

  6. mike j 11 December, 2009 at 8:41 pm #

    The picture Drop Bear linked to has EXIF data.

    Camera was a Pentax Optio Z10, Focal length of 44.1mm equivalent to 266mm on a standard 35mm camera. If it’s not a cropped image, you can get a good idea of the span.

  7. Drop Bear 13 December, 2009 at 1:21 am #


    Using the X-47B mains to scale the UAV, this is a very rough working done at lunch time. The man is 6 feet tall.

    So, 28 feet long with a 60 feet wingspan and a rough max. height of 10 feet.

    Not great and very rough, but interesting that now we know it is not in the MQ-X race, the reasons why can be seen: not alot of space left inside for weaponisation.

  8. mike j 13 December, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    Drop Bear- That’s a good effort and it’ll be interesting to see how close you got.

    It didn’t take too long to realize that the image is cropped. The Optio Z10 shoots images at an aspect ratio of 4:3, smallest resolution is 640 X 480, and the photo is 400 X 285. All you can really know is that it was at maximum zoom, and the image was taken 8 days before they had a drawing made and broke the story.

    On the left of the frame is what looks like an airport surveillance radar, and what may be a airport beacon on the right, next to the truck. If you know the layout of the Kandahar Airfield, you could get an idea of the photographer’s location and the distances.

  9. web security camera 17 November, 2010 at 7:38 am #

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