The USAF has confirmed reports that it is operating a previously unknown reconnaissance UAV out of Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan.
The aircraft, designated the RQ-170 Sentinel, was photographed earlier this year and again in early November, and is believed to have been designed and built by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. The latest photographs of the aircraft landing at Kandahar in daylight show the unmarked aircraft has a bat like shape with a wing span of about 19.8m, an upper surface single engine intake and simple single exhaust at the rear, and what appear to be sensor or communications equipment pods somewhat crudely faired into the upper surface of the fuselage.
The aircraft is believed to have been developed under a rapid program to enhance the coalition’s ISR effort over Afghanistan and has been deployed there since 2007. “The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates’s request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to the combatant commanders and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s vision for an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft,” the USAF told Aviation Week.
The aircraft is based at the secretive Tonopah Test Range, deep inside the Nellis Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas, and is operated by the previously unknown 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, according to reports. Tonopah, about 50km northwest of the even more secretive Area 51, was the original base of the F-117 stealth fighter before it was revealed to the world in 1989, and is believed to house other secret operational or developmental manned and UAV programs.