Debate boils about what's under the RQ-170's hood

Differing reports, expert opinions muddy understanding of what’s at stake

Iran’s claim that it captured a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle has spurred furious debate in the defense community and the Defense Department largely has remained silent, at least on the record. Conflicting reports have stirred up a lot of discussion, but haven't provided much clarity in terms of potential losses.

What does seem to be known in general is that the UAV appears to have been first spotted at Kandahar Air Field in 2009, but likely existed for several years before then, and that it’s been used for reconnaissance missions that are said to include spying on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

The drone almost definitely is designed and used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, using high-tech sensors and equipment that can provide 24-7 coverage of a site using full-motion video and infrared sensors, according to Bill Powers, research fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

“This could be under consideration as a replacement for the U-2, so using it for that kind of reconnaissance, that’s the kind of payloads it would have onboard. I doubt it’s armed; it’s purely for gathering intelligence,” said Powers, who stressed that he does not have direct knowledge of the RQ-170 program and that his thoughts are conjecture.

Jonathan Rue at the Institute for the Study of War agreed that it’s unlikely the RQ-170 is armed and would be used for ISR purposes.

“The [unmanned aircraft system] has a longer loiter time than a satellite and so it can help analysts glean a lot more information about the activities at these nuclear sites, called pattern of life,” Rue said. “It’s rumored to also have some sophisticated sensors onboard that would help detect radiation, which would help the U.S. determine if someone has test detonated a nuclear device. It might also have some signals intelligence equipment onboard.”

In published reports, aviation expert Bill Sweetman has speculated that the RQ-170 is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor package or an active electronically scanned array radar system, and that its wing fairings could be used for datalinks, while the belly could carry various payloads. It’s possible that the RQ-170 could be adapted for strike missions though, like the Air Force’s Reaper and Predator UAVs.

Although the RQ-170 may have some similarities to the Reaper and Predator, the aircraft differs in terms of its mission as well as the technology it likely carries on board, according to Powers and Rue.

“It differs from the more well-known UAS platforms in design and purpose. The shape and coating give it a stealth capability which makes it hard, or even impossible, for ground-based radar stations to detect it,” Rue said. “It probably carries different sensors. And it likely doesn’t carry ordnance, like the Reaper or Predator.”

The RQ-170’s radar-evading stealth makes it more difficult to integrate the latest technologies – whatever is placed on the RQ-170 has to be custom made, he said.

“It’s a distinct possibility that the technology is not going to be the latest that you’d see on some of the other UAVs the military uses,” said Powers. “The Predator or Reaper would probably be a greater loss because of the way we integrate weapons and ISR systems on those – they’re pretty sophisticated systems.”

That idea is supported by a 2009 Aviation Week report that suggested suggest the RQ-170’s designers purposely did not use “highly sensitive technologies” because its single-engine design lends itself to eventual operational loss – and because of the threat of risking cutting-edge technology to exposure.

In a Dec. 8 briefing, Defense Department Press Secretary George Little and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations Navy Capt. John Kirby refused to comment on the RQ-170 beyond acknowledging a lost U.S. UAV and the Iranian photos and video.

“Certainly we've had a chance to look at the images, and there are folks looking at them. But we're not going to comment beyond that,” Kirby said. We said all week…we did have a UAV go missing. But you know, when it comes to sensitive reconnaissance missions, we call them sensitive for a reason. So we're not going to add to what we said [previously].”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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