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RQ-170 Sentinel

On 12 December 2011, during a press conference with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, President Obama said "With respect to the drone inside of Iran, Im not going to comment on intelligence matters that are classified. As has already been indicated, we have asked for it back. Well see how the Iranians respond." On 13 December 2011, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi said that the vehicle was property of Iran and would not be returned to the US. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast also on 13 December 2011 said that Iran had recieved no formal request for the vehicle's return.

On 4 December 2011, Iranian media and officials reported that a US unmanned aerial vehicle had been shot down over Iranian airspace in the east of the country. The downed vehicle was reported to be an RQ-170 Sentinel. NATO later reported that it had lost an unmanned aerial vehicle, but over Western Afghanistan, and did not specify what type of vehicle had been lost. NATO and US officials denied that the vehicle had been shot down or commanded to land in Iran after being remotely hacked into. Unnamed US sources were cited by western media suggesting that the vehicle had in fact been flying over Iran conducting surveillance, possibly for the CIA. On 8 December 2011, Iranian media released images and video of an unmanned aerial vehicle broadly in the shape of the RQ-170.

The RQ-170 is a low observable unmanned aircraft system (UAS) being developed, tested and fielded by the Air Force. It will provide reconnaissance and surveillance in support of the joint forces commander. The Air Force's RQ-170 program leverages the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs (ADP) and government efforts to rapidly develop and produce a low observable UAS. The RQ-170 will directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets. The RQ-170 is flown by Air Combat Command (ACC); 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; and 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada.

A classified stealth UAV was first reported in April 2009. A photograph of the so-called "Beast of Kandahar" emerged on a blog linked to left-wing French newspaper Liberation in December 2009. The jet had long slender outer wings, spanning as much as 80 feet, mated to a stouter, deeper centerbody with a pointed nose.

Bill Sweetman speculated that "The most likely provenance of the airframe is Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, and it is very likely to be associated with the Desert Prowler program - unearthed by historian Peter Merlin and 'patchologist' Trevor Paglen. More background here, but it should be noted that Dave Fulghum reported in June 2001 on a plan to acquire 12-24 high altitude, stealthy UAVs. The effort had gathered pace after a US EP-3 SIGINT aircraft was forced to land in China in April, and went further underground after 9/11. It's believed that the first of a small batch of aircraft flew in late 2005 and were operational in Afghanistan in 2007 (where this photo was probably taken.) Despite superficial similarity the Desert Prowler is not an immediate relative of the Polecat technology demonstrator tested in 2006. The latter incorporated advanced aerodynamic and structural features for a future long-range, very high-altitude UAV, while Desert Prowler is more conservative."

Joe Pappalardo reported that "The RQ-170 Sentinel has been operating out of Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan since 2007. It was developed by Lockheed Martin's secretive aviation shop, nicknamed Skunk Works. The "R" designation means it is not armed, and the fact that the 432nd Wing operates it indicates that the aircraft supports troops on the ground, not spy agencies."

The "Sentinel" nomenclature was ambiguous with the totally unrelated Canadian CL-227 Sentinel UAV, while the "RQ-170" designator was inconsistent the the other RQ [ie, Reconnaissance Drone] designations, which ran from RQ-1 through RQ-11 at the time the designation was first reported.

Sources indicate that at least during 2009, RQ-170s were involved in overflights of North Korea. United States Pacific Command had released a Concept of Operations for RQ-170 Sentinel on 4 August 2009. An Operational Risk Management Plan for 30th Reconnaissance Squadron operations from Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea was subsequently published in August 2009 followed by a Tasking Order for RQ-170 deployment to Kunsan Air Base issued in September 2009.

The Washington Post reported on 17 May 2011, that "stealth drones" had been used to monitor the compound in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was discovered and later killed, citing unnamed current and former US officials. The specific type of drone was not identified, but was believed to have been the RQ-170, a UAV known to incorporate stealth technology, revealed in 2009.




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