Air Force acknowledges stealth UAV

Officials explain factors driving development of jet-powered drone

Air Force officials confirmed Dec. 4 the existence of a high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle that incorporates stealth design characteristics which has been sighted in Afghanistan in recent years, report David Fulghum and Bill Sweetman in Aviation Week’s Ares blog.

The jet-powered UAV, which features a tailless flying wing with sensor pods built into the surface of each wing, is known as the RQ-170 Sentinel. Several photos purported to show the RQ-170 have been posted on the Web. Based on those images, the RQ-170’s wingspan appears to be about 65 feet.

“The Air Force “is developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed Combat Forces,” Air Force officials said in a statement e-mailed to journalists and reproduced in full text in an article by Stephen Trimble at Flight Global. The RQ-170 was built by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program, the officials said.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, as the Advanced Development Program is also known, designed such revolutionary reconnaissance and fighter aircraft as the U-2, SR-71, F-117 and F-22.

The fielding of the RQ-170 is a result of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ request for greater intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets for combatant commanders and also Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s vision for increased Air Force reliance on unmanned aircraft, the officials said.

The RQ-170 is flown by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nev. The squadron reports to the Air Combat Command’s 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.

In addition to incorporating stealth features, the RQ-170 is powered by a jet engine unlike other large UAVs such as the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper, which uses a turboprop engine. The RQ-170 appears to be a tactical, operations-oriented platform and not a strategic intelligence gathering design, according to the Ares blog.

Even though more UAVs are carrying weapons, surveillance and reconnaissance remains their primary function, reports David Carr at Defense Systems. Major trends are under way in the development and fielding of UAV systems in the areas of autonomy, teaming and combat capabilities, Carr reports.

 

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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