Its nickname is the "Beast of Kandahar," but the Air Force has officially dubbed it the RQ-170 Sentinel.
Whatever it is called in aviation or military circles, the Pentagon this month confirmed the existence of what experts are calling the latest addition to the Air Force’s fleet of remotely piloted spy planes.
Like the much-publicized Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial systems, the Sentinel is home-based in Nevada and was probably tested at classified locations on the Nellis range, including Area 51, one private defense information expert said.
An Air Force spokesman said the Sentinel is being developed by Creech Air Force Base, specifically the base’s 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at the Tonopah Test Range, about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas. He said the squadron is part of the 432nd Wing at Creech, hub for the nation’s remotely piloted military aircraft.
Andy Bourland, chief spokesman for the Air Force press desk at the Pentagon, declined to release photographs of the Sentinel or discuss anything beyond a four-sentence statement.
The statement reads in part that the Air Force "is developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces."
"The RQ-170 Sentinel, a low observable UAS, was built by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs. The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ request for increased intelligence, surveillance and intelligence support to the Combatant Commanders and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s vision for an increased … reliance on unmanned aircraft," Bourland’s statement reads.
A story in the trade publication Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that the Sentinel has been flying classified missions over Afghanistan and was photographed twice in 2007 at Kandahar’s airport.
Last April, the stealthy unmanned aircraft was referred to as the "Beast of Kandahar" in a defense technology blog by veteran black projects researcher Bill Sweetman.
Aviation Week’s latest article describes the Sentinel as a "tailless flying wing" with a wingspan similar to that of the rear propeller-driven MQ-9 Reaper, which has a wingspan of 66 feet.
The Reaper is the big brother of the MQ-1 Predator, but with the laser-guided missiles that the Predator fires, the Reaper can drop laser-guided bombs.
Both are workhorses in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and are in high demand by battlefield commanders.
They can be controlled by pilots and sensor operators via satellite links from ground stations at Creech and bases elsewhere in the United States.
John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, a military information Web site, said the Sentinel appears to be powered by a single jet engine so that it can fly at high altitudes and monitor large areas.
Pike said Pentagon planners probably are taking the next logical step to equip the Sentinel or a plane like it with munitions.
"If there isn’t already an armed version of it, you would assume there would be," Pike said in a telephone interview Monday.
Assuming the budget for classified projects is as big as it was during the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative — "Star Wars" — era of the Reagan administration, Pike said, aeronautical engineers are probably busy developing an array of unmanned aircraft at the classified installation not far from Creech on the dry Groom Lake bed known as Area 51.
"I think Area 51 is crawling with them," he said.
The Sentinel appears to be a scaled- down version of the radar-evading B-2 Spirit bomber.
"It does look like the people who designed this have seen the stealth bomber somewhere along the line," Pike said.
As for incorporating a jet engine in the design, he said there’s nothing particularly unique about unmanned platforms being jet-powered. Others include the RQ-3 DarkStar and the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
It would make sense, Pike said, to use the Sentinel for persistent surveillance, like a Predator that loiters out of sight, high above its targets, except the Sentinel would cover a wider area.
As such, the Sentinel, like the Reaper and the Predator, would be useful for tracking terrorists in Iraq who need sizable facilities to build roadside bombs that unleash explosive-shaped charges capable of piercing armor.
The Sentinel could serve as a regional surveillance system to cover potential terrorist activities in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Somalia and Yemen.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.More information on the RQ-170 Sentinel at Aviation Week.