The United States Air Force (USAF) has owned up to having a new stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in use in Afghanistan.
Flightglobal reports the system was developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division.
The USAF confirms in a media statement that the RQ-170 Sentinel is in development, and is expected “to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces”.
The statement released Friday follows a series of images of a jet-powered, stealthy aircraft on the Internet since April, including a clear shot of the aircraft that circulated widely earlier this month.
But Flightglobal says it is not immediately clear whether the aircraft shown in pictures and the RQ-170 are the same. “Besides describing the RQ-170 as stealthy, the USAF released no further technical information about its new UAV, or any photos.”
The RQ-170 is flown by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit reactivated by the USAF at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada on September 1, 2005, according to a service fact sheet.
Tonopah in the 1980s was the secret home of the F117 Night Hawk stealth bomber. The Skunk Works has a long association with Tonopah and the nearby USAF operating facility at Groom Lake where the U2 and SR71 Blackbird were test flown.
In a news release about a change of command, dated 10 August, the USAF described the 30th as a “developmental UAS squadron under the 432nd Wing, Air Combat Command”.
The RQ-170 joins the USAF’s growing inventory of large surveillance aircraft, which includes the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems RQ-1 Predator/MQ-9 Reaper.
“But the Sentinel appears to be the first publicly acknowledged operational UAS designed for stealth,” Flight Global says.
The Sentinel’s confirmed existence also sheds new light on Lockheed’s activity in the large UAS market, which was previously considered to be undeveloped.
Lockheed’s Dark Star unmanned air vehicle lost a competition in the late 1990s to the Global Hawk. Since then, Lockheed unveiled the P175 Polecat, a stealthy, high-altitude UAS, but the only known example crashed during a flight test.
The wikipedia notes the RQ-170 Sentinel has been deployed to Afghanistan, where one was sighted at Kandahar International Airport in late 2007.