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RQ-170 Sentinel UAV

The RQ-170 Sentinel is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operated by the U.S. Air Force. Developed as a stealth UAV at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, the Sentinel is a flying wing capable of reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) operations. Nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week, the RQ-170 has been deployed to Afghanistan as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

RQ-170 Sentinel. Image: artist's rendering based on available information. © Olive-Drab.com LLC
RQ-170 Sentinel. Image: artist's rendering based on available information. ©Olive-Drab.com LLC

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV): Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel Development

The existence of the RQ-170 was confirmed by the U.S. Air Force on 4 December 2009. Referred to as a "low observable unmanned aircraft system (UAS)" by the Air Force, the RQ-170 was an outgrowth of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs combined with government efforts to create a stealthy UAV.

The RQ-170 takes the form of a tailless flying wing. In distinction with the F-117A Stealth Fighter or B-2 Stealth Bomber, the RQ-170's wings do not shield the aircraft's exhaust. This is likely to avoid putting sensitive components into an aircraft platform that will eventually suffer operational losses that could lead to such technology falling into the wrong hands.

The RQ-170 is presumably an unarmed UAV because of its "R" designation, where "R" stands for reconnaissance. However, its exact operational role remains unknown.

Due to the stealth nature of the RQ-170, little is known about its performance characteristics. Its grey color suggests an operational ceiling below 50,000 feet. The few available photos led aviation experts to believe that the Sentinel is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor package or an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar system.

The Sentinel's wing fairings could be used for datalinks, and the belly could carry various payloads. In other words, the RQ-170 could be adapted to perform strike missions or participate in electronic warfare, joining the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper as a multi-mission UAV, though the Air Force states that this is not the drone's purpose.

RQ-170 Sentinel Operational History

The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, activated on 1 September 2005, operates the RQ-170 Sentinel at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The Air Combat Command's 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada also flies the RQ-170.

The RQ-170 has been deployed to Afghanistan. In late 2007, one was seen at Kandahar International Airport. Its role in Afghanistan is unclear: the Taliban have no radar capability, making the RQ-170's stealth capabilities unnecessary. Speculation includes possible reconnaissance missions in Pakistan or Iran, the latter being within the suspected range of the Sentinel.

The RQ-170 has also reportedly been test-flown in South Korea, possibly in preparation to replace the U-2 aircraft at Osan Air Base for missions over North Korea.

Characteristics of the RQ-170 Sentinel

PayloadEO/IR sensor package; AESA radar system
EngineGeneral Electric TF34, a reliable engine also used on the A-10 aircraft
Ceiling50,000 ft.
Span46 ft. to 90 ft.
Height4 ft. to 6 ft.

Note: Characteristics above are based on best available information (Feb 2011).

Photo of RQ-170 posted to Aviation Week Blog, 11 Dec 2009
Photo of RQ-170 posted to Aviation Week Blog, 11 Dec 2009.

Recommended Books about the RQ-170 Sentinel and UAVs

Find More Information on the Internet

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