The RQ-170 Sentinel may have recently fulfilled one of it’s most important design objectives: to be lost over enemy or semi-friendly territory without giving up the DoD’s latest advances in stealth technology.
Losing drones is inevitable. Its a fairly common occurrence to hear about MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers being lost, usually do to a data link or communications issue with the ground control station. In the past, US fighter aircraft have even been scrambled in order to shoot down the errant drone before it ventures uncontrolled into enemy or even friendly air space. But what exactly do you do with a drone that loses contact and is very hard to spot via radar? Although the operator may know what area it is in, you cannot exactly vector a fighter right to it if all datalinking and communications have been lost. If this same drone is lost over enemy territory you cannot even send the fighters out to destroy it because it could start a war. So if you cannot communicate with a deep surveillance stealth drone, such as the RQ-170, your options are very limited. Do you hope it crashed into an a mountain cliff never to be seen or heard from again, or do you pick up the red phone and start the damage control process?
It is known that the RQ-170 has done most of its work deep inside Pakistan, searching for high value targets (HVTs), providing live streaming video of special operations missions and eyeballing the Pakistani nuclear program and storage sites. This probable mission set was deemed fact by the DoD’s acknowledgement that the Sentinel played the central overwatch role during and leading up to Operation Neptune’s Spear, otherwise known as the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Although the media’s focus on Pakistan in relation to the stealthy drone makes total sense, the “Beast Of Kandahar,” as it was once dubbed before it was publicly acknowledged by the USAF, could as easily turn west into Iran as south-east into Pakistan from it’s nest at Kandahar Airfield.
Having the RQ-170 fly missions over Iran would make total sense. In fact, when the RQ-170 was originally funded and developed I am sure Pakistan and Iran were the Sentinel’s two “customers” that the Defense Department had in mind. In many ways, the RQ-170’s design seems to be directly dictated by the region for which it was intended. The aircraft, although advanced in concept, does not appear cutting edge in terms of stealth technology, so losing one over foreign territory, although not ideal, would not compromise all of America’s latest and greatest low observable design techniques. Further, the aircraft seems to be geared mostly toward electro-optical surveillance, but this does not mean it does not incorporate a highly capable, fighter sized radar warning receiver that can also provide high fidelity electronic support information. Because of the RQ-170’s dumbed down stealth characteristics, the most advanced component on the aircraft may be a radar warning receiver and electronic support measures sub-system similar to the F-22 Raptor’s ALR-94.
The ALR-94 ESM system, or one similar to it, utilizes a series of antennas embedded in the skin of the aircraft and is totally passive in operation, giving off no electromagnetic energy of its own. This advanced constellation of miniaturized receiving antennas, interferometers and high-powered computers allows for real-time monitoring and geolocating of active radio frequency emissions within the aircraft’s battle space. This would give the drone an archival function, where it records the enemies electronic order of battle for future uses and intelligence purposes and it would also greatly enhance it’s survivability by giving the operators near real-time situational awareness of what types of radars are in use as well as their precise location within the RQ-170’s area of operations. The system works in real-time by comparing the exact radar cross-section of the RQ-170 with the active radar “spheres” detected around it. With this system a virtual map of the threat radar’s detection ranges can be produced, which can then prompt real-time changes in the aircraft’s course so that it can stay outside the detection and engagement ranges of the enemy radars. In other words, no aircraft is truly invisible to all wavelengths of radar, but by knowing what radar systems are radiating a stealthy aircraft can remain invisible by staying outside the minimum detection range in relation to the aircraft’s radar footprint from different angles, its distance to the radar and the threat radar’s known capabilities. It would seem that since the RQ-170 is not on the very high-end of current stealth design it would need a system like this in order to survive over enemy airspace. The down side is that this system may be more sensitive in nature than the airframe itself in the event that the drone is lost over enemy territory.
So what does a loss of an RQ-170 over Iran mean? It all depends. If the aircraft was shot down that means it was detected, and how it was detected will be very important for future Sentinel missions. Was it a stationary radar that the RQ-170 got to close to? Was it a pop-up mobile system such as a SA-6 or TOR type of tracked SAM system that may have unexpectedly went online close enough to the RQ-170 to detect it? There is always the possibility that an Iranian fighter shot the drone down, possibly by visually spotting it, even against great odds. Aside from the how, when and where areas of interest, the most important thing would be the state of the airframe after departing from controlled flight, whether it had been caused by malfunction or by hostile action. If the RQ-170 remained fairly intact that would mean a problem for the DoD, although a manageable one.
Because the RQ-170 was most likely constructed with expendability in mind, something that had to be factored in for an aircraft that would fly routinely over Pakistani airspace, a country who has incredibly close ties to China and their military industrial complex. So if indeed Iran shot down an RQ-170 as it has claimed, or one had crashed while spying on Iran’s nuclear program or conducting other duties over their airspace, it may be a technological loss to America but not to the extent that all of our most sensitive stealth secrets would be totally compromised. In other words, the wreckage would be akin to say (with great speculation) America’s early 90’s stealth technology, with a few sensitive modern subsystems onboard. The next big question pertains to whether we will see wreckage shown on TV, similar to the tail of the downed stealth Blackhawk used during the Abbottobad raid, of the batwinged Sentinel? There is no doubt that if Iran does have a Sentinel carcass it will be one heck of bargaining chip, not just with the US but with other countries such as China. Although the fruits of the such a trophy may be much less exciting than expected to whoever ends up being the highest bidder for the Iranian prize.
In the end the Sentinel’s humbling reality may just be that by being lost over hostile territory, without America having a major loss of technological secrets, the “expendable stealth” RQ-170 may have just served it’s central yet most grim purpose; to provide high risk surveillance over a densely defended airspace, in a very low risk manner…
*UPDATE– DoD says that they lost an “unnamed” drone while flying in Afghanistan. This is highly unlikely because the USAF would just confirm where and when it crashed in Afghanistan as the USAF doesn’t just leave stealth drones, or even the archaic in comparison Predators, hanging out in fields within a country for which they have full air sovereignty over. Further, you don’t need a high value stealth drone to spy on people or places in a country where there is no radar threat whatsoever to the aircraft itself! This is what cheap and reliable Predators and other light UAV’s are for. The RQ-170 is strictly built to fly in denied airspace. This was a very weak, unbelievable response from the DoD on this matter. Also the Iranians claim to have the aircraft mostly intact, which is bad news if this fact is indeed true. But once again, this author believes that the RQ-170 was designed with this very situation in mind.
*UPDATE- The consensus seems to be that Iran DOES in fact have the RQ-170. In the Fox story below and unnamed source says that: “According to a senior U.S. military source with intimate knowledge of the Sentinel drone, the aircraft likely “wandered” into Iranian air space after losing contact with its handlers and is presumed to be intact since it is programmed to fly level and find a place to land, rather than crashing.” What on earth was Lockheed thinking when they designed a secret stealth drone that will fly over enemy territory and will land intact if it goes astray? You would think they would put a charge inside of it to destroy itself or at least nosedive into the ground at high-speed if control is lost. The only thing I can think of is that if the aircraft were in fact on a test or training flight over Afghanistan, losing contact and then straying into enemy territory, it may have been without a possible destructive charge and set on a training mode that would cause it to attempt to land at a default location. Or, depending on how much artificial intelligence there is onboard, it could use stored 3D maps and choose for itself a suitable recovery area in an emergency. When you are testing anything it is key to have the article survive as intact as possible so that you can fix whatever went wrong. Under the current circumstances that mindset would have been very destructive as Afghanistan is not Edwards Air Force Base or Groom Lake, and going astray in that area of the world could mean you secret stealth drone flys right into your enemies hands.
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“Stealth Strike Fighter VS SAM Systems” Picture courtesy of Air Power Australia. Please take a moment and visit their site, although some of the opinions and viewpoints differ, they run a first class website packed full of tons of information! http://www.ausairpower.net/