Since the “Sentinel Down” escapade began I have wanted to do a piece about the probable origins of the RQ-170, in an attempt to answer many of the looming questions as to where it came from and why it exists. Please keep in mind this piece will deal with logical assumptions, previous facts, articles produced by respected sources and will rely on years of watching development patterns of US weapons programs.
The idea of a stealthy tactical reconnaissance platform is nothing new. The ability to leverage high-fidelity, near real-time intelligence over enemy territory, without the risk of losing a pilot or even being seen by the enemy, has always been on the wish list of any military commander with a creative imagination. The possibility of the existence of such an asset first came forward briefly following Operation Desert Storm, when there were shadowy reports of a manned reconnaissance companion aircraft to the infamous F-117 Nighthawk, the shining star of the Desert Storm air campaign, that provided tactical intelligence and possibly target designation before and after F-117 strikes. This aircraft was nicknamed the TR-3 “Black Manta” due to its proposed semi elliptical/triangular design. Some trace the TR-3’s lineage as far back as a the mid-1970’s to the Teledyne-Ryan corporation, that was later acquired by Northrop, via the patent shown in the link below. Others say the “Black Manta” was a direct offshoot of the B-2 program and possibly was developed from one of its technology demonstrators. These are all impressive theories although the reality is that no hard evidence really supports the existence of the TR-3 “Black Manta,” and some think the rumor of its existence evolved more out of the confusion surrounding the renaming of U-2 fleet, from TR-1 back to U-2, and the lauch of the “TIER 3” unmanned reconnaissance program during this same period of time. None-the-less, whether this aircraft, or one with a similar mission to it, ever existed is not as important as the fact that the idea of this aircraft and its mission did exist during the late 80’s early 90’s. Outside of the speculation surrounding the “Black Manta,” during the early 1990s there was even a push to put the F-117 back into production as a tactical surveillance platform. This version of the F-117 would have been configurable with the F/A-18D(AW)’s ATARS reconnaissance system in one bomb bay and a synthetic aperture radar in the other. This never happened, but soon after the idea was rolled into a new unmanned set of aircraft requirements that were unveiled by the USAF. This lays the groundwork perfectly for the Tier III MINUS and TIER II PLUS programs that mark the first confirmed embarkation point where we can begin tracing the RQ-170’s Sentinel’s shadowy lineage with some certainty.
Teledyne-Ryan patent in question:
Shortly after the success of Operation Desert Storm there was a flood of comprehensive “after action” reports that were being distilled by the DoD and defense contractors in an attempt to create weapon systems that could plug the holes identified in US capabilities during the conflict. At the same time the DoD was trying to change gears away from its Cold War, strategic focused mindset, to one that is more flexible and tactical based. Further, the retirement of the SR-71 and the rapidly aging and vulnerable nature of the U-2 fleet would see a new USAF requirement for an unmanned, modern, survivable tactical reconnaissance platform and a separate strategic, high-altitude replacement for the U-2. These programs, known as TIER 2+ and TIER 3-, would be led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office. Seeing as the TIER 2- would be an unmanned replacement for the U-2, it is curious that the TIER 3- had no predecessor, a seemingly blatant hole in the US’s force structure which does lend itself to the possibility that something like the “Black Manta” did exist, although sadly we have no way to confirm this.
The TIER 2+ requirement for an unmanned high altitude, long endurance, standoff surveillance platform would result in the selection of the Teledyne-Ryan (now Northrop Grumman) RQ-4 “Global Hawk,” while the TIER III- requirement for a stealthy medium endurance and medium altitude penetrating surveillance platform would result in the RQ-3 “Darkstar.” The Darkstar was designed by Lockheed Martin’s famed “Skunk Works” utilizing extensive composite components and similar materials and manufacturing practices to what we now know as “rapid prototyping,” although at the time this concept was still in its infancy.
Rapid prototyping has been discussed here at Aviationintel at length, but basically, in its current form, it utilizing advanced computer aided design and software modelling to minimize the part count needed to produce a product. It also utilizes cutting edge composites and polymers instead of traditional metallic building materials, thus saving weight, cost, time, and complexity. Further, utilizing ultra modern “3D Printing” hardware and fabrication machines, rapid prototyping allows for large sections of aircraft to be “printed,” or automatically fabricated instead of being built and assembled by hand out of smaller pieces. This technique is especially relevant for proof of concept demonstrators or small production runs as it is cost prohibitive to create large amounts of tooling and infrastructure just to produce a handful of aircraft. This style of development is also conducive to stealth aircraft design as fewer pieces mean less radar reflecting seams and crevices, and the ability to fabricate large flowing structures in a precise manner which is great for radar evading designs. Another great advantage of utilizing composites and plastics instead of traditional materials is that it may be possible to include radar absorbing materials directly into the polymer structure of the aircraft, instead of applying it to the skin as is done traditionally. This would drastically simplify maintenance and sustainability requirements for a low observable aircraft. Many factors point to the fact that this “rapid prototyping” concept was being evolved by the major aerospace defense contractors during the mid 1990’s and was known to have been used in other stealth test aircraft, such as Boeing’s striking “Bird Of Prey” technology demonstrator.
The RQ-3 Darkstar was designed to penetrate deep into enemy airspace, at an altitude around 50,000 ft, and provide continuous, real-time tactical intelligence to commanders in theatre, and it had to do all of this at an affordable price. Its size would be roughly half that of its TIER 2+ Global Hawk cousin, and it would share the same “semi autonomous” command and control functionality and ground control hardware developed by Raytheon for its operation. This system would allow the aircraft to go about its mission as planned, without a “man-in-the-loop” flying the aircraft in a traditional manner, yet at the same time it would be able to be re-tasked or its mission modified at any time. The aircraft would be able to loiter for some eight hours at a time, utilizing its electro-optical sensor suite or low probability of intercept synthetic aperture radar to keep watch on its target in unprecedented close proximity if need be. A key difference between the Darkstar’s and Global Hawk’s payload capability was the Darkstar could only carry either its miniaturized EO or SAR radar suite at one time, whereas the both could be carried at once aboard the larger Global Hawk. All “final product” intelligence gathered would then be processed once again through Raytheon’s common ground station that would serve both platforms. It was also rumored that as the Darkstar developed and advanced radar warning and geolocation gear continued to shrink in size and increase in capability, some sort of secondary ELINT and even a possible tactical jamming capability could be added later on.
Darkstar entered flight testing in 1996 and the first prototype crashed on only its second flight. A modified design flew in 1998 and racked up about a half-dozen flights before the program was mysteriously cancelled in 1999, even though two other prototypes were built for the flight test program and were ready to fly. At the time the common story within the aviation community was that the aircraft would never meet design requirements so the program was abandoned, but many thought this was a simple cover story, not to hide the fact that the Darkstar’s potential was so bleak, but to hide the fact that its potential was so great. None-the-less, the prototypes were sent to museums and the program was shuddered, at least to the public’s view.
Then, on a clear morning in September the Twin Towers fell and Pentagon was torn in two. The Global War on Terror had begun, and the United States brand new focus in the new millennium would no doubt realize an urgent requirement that would lead to the Darkstar’s rebirth.
Although it is highly probable that theTIER3- program had continued in the black after the RQ-3’s public cancellation, it is doubtful that it was running at anywhere near the pace it would have following the September 11th attacks. The looming Global War On Terror and the great fear of the proliferation of nuclear weapons surely would have given the TIER3-‘s deep penetrating persistent reconnaissance concept a whole new focus beyond that of a general weapon system to be used during periods of peer warfare. Instead the TIER3- was the perfect surveillance weapon system to be utilized in America’s looming unconventional wars.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan, the realities of the budding Global War On Terror and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East would most certainly have highlighted the fact that US would urgently need a way to spy on not just its enemies but also it’s fair weather friends. Nuclear programs would have to be watched, high value targets would have to be surveyed, terrorists would have to be tracked, special forces would need support from an all-seeing persistent eye in the sky, and something that could even send back moving video, in real-time, to operational commanders in the field would be a dream weapon. In other words, traditional “moment in time” satellite or high speed reconnaissance aircraft produced imagery would just not cut it for these unique applications and requirements. Further, rapid advancement in UAV technology, flight control systems, data links and the total validation in unmanned operations by the Predator drone program made it clear that such an asset would be surely unmanned. And although there was a new need for such capabilities and mission requirements were of an urgent nature, the platform, or at least the concept behind it already fully existed. And so Darkstar and the whole TIER3- concept would rise once again, this time with the urgency and cash behind it that program managers could only have dreamed of in the 1990’s.
Even if the RQ-3 program continued well into development after getting publicly cancelled two years before the events of September 11th, 2001, its need and prominence would have turned it into an absolute necessity on September 12, 2001. Once the invasion of Iraq came to pass there were many rumblings within the military technology community that certain cutting edge, black surveillance platforms were thrust into operational testing over the skies of Baghdad, after only short development periods. Most notable were publicized accounts of U-2 pilots seeing aircraft flying in their airspace when they most certainly should not have been there. Even grunts on the ground had reported seeing strange shaped aircraft loitering over their positions, high in the sky, sometimes for hours on end. After these reports had began to emerge aviation journalists started to pry at their contacts within industry and the Pentagon about the supposed mysterious aircraft in question…
The good folks over at Aviation Week produced a piece linked below that is absolutely eery in its accuracy when it comes to what we know about the RQ-170 Sentinel today, and what was leaked to them then. In the piece unnamed officials stated that the aircraft was not in an operational configuration yet but was rushed into operational testing for Iraqi Freedom. Its use during the conflict would accomplish two goals: one, to furnish its much-needed and unique deep penetration, persistent surveillance capabilities to commanders on the ground, and two, to prove to the USAF that the aircraft was worth putting into some scale of production. The Global Hawk also went through a similar testing phase during Operation Iraqi Freedom, although in a less secretive manner, that proved most valuable to commanders in the region.
Other defense department and industry sources explained that this aircraft was a close descendant of Darkstar and to the original TIER3- concept, some even going as far as describing it as a “Darkstar like thing” but with updated flight controls, command and control interfaces, low observable apertures, and low probability of intercept communications. Another source even described the need for satellite communications antennas to be located on top of the aircraft, so that surveillance data could be uploaded in real-time via satellite link, a feature that is unmistakably prominent on the RQ-170 as we see it today. Another source talked about its utilization of an updated version of the cancelled A-12 Avenger II’s Westinghouse AN/APQ-183 low probability of intercept, high-resolution synthetic aperture phased array radar. Apparently this aircraft operated out of Al Udeid air base during the conflict due to the base’s expansive facilities, high security and almost total concealment from public view. Further it was said that at the time there were only a couple of airframes, a ground control station and spare parts in existence as the program was vying for production dollars.
Years would pass after the opening hostilities over Iraq until there would be the most notable revolution regarding the existence of a TIER3- asset yet. In 2006, at the Farnborough air show, Lockheed presented to the world the newly declassified and puzzling P-175 “Polecat” technology demonstrator flying wing UAV. The aircraft’s origination is said to date back to 2003, and the airframe was flying less than two years later. Lockheed says the aircraft was designed to further evolve “rapid prototyping techniques,” and was made up of 90% composite material and only 200 individual parts. It was also said to help prove the flying wing UAV design, as well as “autonomous operations.” Further Lockheed stated that the aircraft was somehow related to surveillance missions yet at the same time it was to help evolve future possibilities of an unmanned long-range strike platform. The whole Polecat story at the time seemed vague, looking back it seems downright puzzling.
The aircraft was lost within months of its unveiling to the world after terminating itself after malfunctioning on a test flight over the Nellis Ranges while it was said to be still under full monitoring via the ground station it was “tethered to.” Lockheed stated the following: “an irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment, which caused the aircraft’s automatic fail-safe flight termination mode to activate.” Apparently this flight termination mode was automatic as it was in place so that the aircraft would not stray on its own into civilian airspace outside of the Nellis Range Complex. A very interesting fact seeing as the number one question everyone was asking after the loss of the RQ-170 Sentinel over Iran was “why did it not-self destruct or fly itself into the ground at high-speed?” Through this Lockheed admission, we now know that such a mode does exist on semi-autonomous UAVs developed by Lockheed Martin, that they can destroy itself, at least during testing and when programmed to do so, if something goes terribly wrong. Interesting to say the least in light of current events!
Knowing what we know now about the RQ-170, the Polecat’s story seems incredibly odd. The two aircraft look strikingly similar, especially when it comes to wing design and engine exhausts and so on, although the P-175 Polecat looks much lighter and more flimsy than the stout Sentinel. But aside from maybe a more aggressive use of rapid prototyping techniques and maybe higher operating altitudes what really was the purpose of the Polecat? Lockheed already had, or was about to have a fully operational flying wing stealth UAV design that had been evolved over more than a decade. Yet the Polecat was not only designed and built at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, but it was also fairly quickly declassified. This begs the question, was the Polecat actually the technology demonstrator, built and flown years earlier, for the RQ-170 Sentinel? What is significant is that the P-175 Polecat, and its crash over the Nellis Range Complex was an ominous sign of things to come, as just months later the aviation world would be set abuzz with the spotting of what would become one of the most mysterious flying machines ever built.
In 2007, an individual working with the French contingent based at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan snapped some incredibly low quality pics of what was undoubtedly an unmanned flying wing drone of some sort. Speculation ran rampant as to what it was and why it was there. Many of the less visually gifted analysts pointed directly to the recently declassified P175 Polecat as the aircraft pictured, others disagreed as the drone looked larger, more robust and operational in nature. Well known defense journalist Bill Sweetman apparently slapped the now infamous and downright catchy “Beast Of Kandahar” nickname on the mysterious drone, and from then on that has been its unofficial nickname.
At the time many people who concern themselves with military aviation matters did not seem to make the connection that the aircraft had no direct role over the skies of Afghanistan. There was simply no mission for a stealthy, high-tech reconnaissance drone in a country where there is absolutely no surface to air or fighter aircraft threat whatsoever. The aircraft was clearly produced to spy invisibly on Afghanistan’s neighbors, both friendly and otherwise. Of special interest were Iran and Pakistan’s nuclear programs. The need for intelligence on Iran’s development progress as well as the need for monitoring of Pakistan’s nuclear sites, mainly so that the US could know what to destroy if that country were to fall into total anarchy, would have been of paramount importance. Further, high value terror targets were known to have lived and operated not just in the unruly NW federal lands of Pakistan but also in and around some of the country’s main population centers. Predator and Reaper class drones were of perfect design for plying through skies over Baluchistan or other loosely controlled Taliban and Al Qaeda hiding spots, but what about over and around Islamabad, where an integrated air defense system is on constant high alert due to continuing tensions with India? That is where the stealthy RQ-170 comes it, whose goal is not simply peak and dash but to loiter and record the subtle details of everyday life, perfect for hunting individuals who most certainly do not want to be found!
By 2009 more pictures, some of fairly good quality, had surfaced depicting the “Beast” in grand fashion. Still some analyst could not come to terms with the fact that aircraft was almost certainly unarmed and that is was not a massive flying wing that it seemed many wished it was. In photos depicting the drone on the Kandahar runway it was clearly apparent that the drone was actually relatively small, this author estimated its wingspan at maybe 60-70 feet and its height at about five feet or so. By December of 2009 the USAF, after being flooded with questions about the strange aircraft operating in broad daylight out of Kandahar, came forward a declassified the RQ-170 verbally. Stating that the asset in question was owned by the USAF, its name was the “Sentinel,” its home was Tonopah Air Base and its handlers were the 30th Air Reconnaissance Wing. Tonopah is quite the famous place among military aviation enthusiasts. It seems to be the place where “black” programs go when they are in classified “purgatory.” A state where they have reached operational status but still need to be hidden from direct public view. This place was made famous by the F-117 Nighthawk which inhabited the airfield for years before the program was declassified. In fact all the F-117s returned to their former home when the program shut down a few years ago, and all of the jets are stored in the hangars there. Who knows, maybe the F-117’s true replacement lives right alongside it today!
Following the USAF’s superficial declassification of the program, news about the newly revealed Sentinel was sparse. There were supposed spottings of it in Japan and South Korea, and even a story published in a South Korean newspaper stated that the RQ-170 was going to take over the monitoring of North Korea from the U-2, a claim that was clearly without merit or true understanding of the subject matter. It was clear that although the RQ-170 could augment the U-2, it could not directly replace it. Eventually that would be the RQ-4 “Global Hawk’s” job as was always envisioned under the TIER2+ / TIER3- synergistic force structure.
Then, the world was stunned on a Sunday night in early May, 2011 when it was announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed in what would be described as a commando raid right out of Hollywood blockbuster, complete with ultra secret stealth helicopters and full motion surveillance video shot by an invisible eye in the sky, and transmitted in real-time directly to the Situation Room in the White House. This humble videographer that somehow penetrated within 60 miles of downtown Islamabad, right over a major Pakistani military installation, was in fact the RQ-170 Sentinel. The “Beast of Kandahar” finally had a claim to fame, and there could not have been a mission that Americans cared more about than this one for it to be a part of. Later we would find out that the RQ-170 had also flown dozens of mission over Abbottobad with the objective of providing invaluable “patterns of life” surveillance over the Bin Laden compound. Further, some sources have said that the Sentinel, possibly a second airframe, also provided a valuable signal intelligence role at the time of the raid, allowing intelligence specialists to monitor the Pakistani response to the raid in real-time. One thing was highlighted to a great degree by the Sentinel’s involvement in “Operation Neptune’s Spear,” the RQ-170 is very much a tactical reconnaissance platform that is indeed highly suited for supporting special operations forces operating in the most denied of territories. This real time video capability was something reminiscent of a scene from the 1992 Harrison Ford espionage block buster “Patriot Games,” where high ups at CIA headquarters watched a high risk special forces raid in infra-red in real time. It seems that this technology was finally made possible in a much more persistent fashion via the RQ-170 Sentinel.
We have discussed this raid, and the Sentinel’s role in it at incredible length over the last 7 months, you can click the link under categories, “Stealth Blackhawk & Bin Laden” to the right of this article if you would like to read through previous articles on the subject. But what this raid told us was that the RQ-170 was very capable of penetrating an integrated air defense network, and it could send real-time streaming video over the horizon and around the world. Further, in many ways the Bin Laden raid was the greater public’s first knowledge of the RQ-170, as the majority of the world does not read military technology magazine or websites, and what may have been a two minute segment on the nightly news just didn’t have the sticking power to really burn the “Beast” into the public’s conscious like its assistance on the greatest American raid since Doolittle’s flight off of the USS Hornet some 60+ years prior.
By the fall of 2011 America’s collective mind had heard so much about that Bin Laden raid that it would seem that the American people were moving on, grateful that a miserable chapter in the history of the country had come to some sort of a closure. An election cycle was hogging most the news and stealth drones just were not of people’s interest in the same way that they were months prior. Then, in early December 2011 the short but mysterious tale of the RQ-170 Sentinel would take a massive turn for the worst, one had apparently gone missing and it would subsequently turn up in the most un-ideal of places and in the most frightening of conditions.
In early December there was chatter amongst various news agencies that a US drone had been shot down by the Iranians. This was really not much of a revelation as many drones have been lost over Iran over the last half decade or so, but something about this time seemed to be different, Iran was claiming this was not just any drone but was infact the US’s prized RQ-170 Sentinel. The DoD went through a strange series of admissions regarding the drone that they too corroborated was “missing,” although they claimed it had gone rogue over Afghanistan, not deep inside Iran as the Iranians were claiming. Nor did they admit that the drone in question was an a stealthy Sentinel. None-the-less most everyone within the military aviation community was thinking the same thing, that Sentinel was most likely shot down doing what it had always been intended to do, spying on Iran’s nuclear program. But there would be another twist in the story, Iran was further claiming that they electronically hijacked the drone, and that is was intact.
On the morning of December 8th, 2011, Iran made good on its word that they would indeed show pictures of the captured Sentinel drone that they had claimed they masterfully commandeered. The Pentagon and apparently the CIA’s worst fears were true, the Sentinel was being held prisoner by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and it was startlingly intact. The world would have its first detailed look at America’s fabled drone, one that the American public actually did have some connection with as it directly helped avenge those lost on 9/11. But these pictures were not for a ticker tape parade, or featured in colorful press release distributed by the USAF. Quite the contrary, these pictures would end up of proving that America’s Sentinel had gone from secret to very much un-secret due to some sort of major malfunction, or even worse, some sort of cyber hijacking deep inside Iranian territory. One thing is certain, whatever was unique about this drone would be not so any longer, as Iran and most likely China and Russia will be able to poke and prod the machine until they are completely satisfied with their investigations.
The Darkstar had fallen just as its popularity had reached a crescendo.
This is the story of the RQ-170 the best way I think it can be told. I do find one major piece of the Sentinel’s story a bit out of phase, and that is the timing of P-175 Polecat. Sure the aircraft could very well just have been a small technology demonstrator for Lockheed, but does it take that big of an investment to realize that you can continue evolving rapid prototyping technologies or that a similar aircraft to the RQ-170 can be optimized for possibly higher operating altitude by adding a motor, cutting weight and changing the wing design a bit? I don’t see how this would have been worth the millions Lockheed had invested into it, at a time when they already had the real deal in operation. I have a feeling that the P-175 Polecat may have been the technology demonstrator that followed the RQ-3 Darkstar and that subsequently lead to the RQ-170 Sentinel as we see it today. Am I certain of this? NO, not at all. Do I have a strong hunch? YES. Further, why would they declassify the Polecat mere months before the RQ-170 would be operating during daylight hours out of a multi-national airfield that the US does not have full control over? I will let you do the simple math on that one.
Much can be taken from this story of a unique and somehow overtly engrossing weapon system. The TIER3-‘s, Darkstar’s, Sentinel’s or whatever you would like to call it, story would have seemed to have come full circle. From its troubled development, to its rebirth as the right weapon at the right time to fight America’s War On Terror, to its baptism by fire over Iraq, to its triumphant assist in killing the free world’s public enemy number one, and finally to its totally puzzling and almost heartbreaking fall into enemy hands, one thing seems clear, the Darkstar concept appears to be to valuable to abandoned. Quite the contrary I am certain that out of the ashes of the current debacle a new and improved TIER3- Darkstar descendant will rise. Who knows, maybe it already has, possibly even years ago…
PLEASE CONTINUE ON TO THE LINK BELOW TO READ PART TWO OF THE “RQ-170 SENTINEL ORIGINS” SERIES!: