The RQ-170 Sentinel went from “Beast of Kandahar” enigma to Bin Laden-catching fame to crashing into Iranian hands, all in about half a decade. Since then, there have been few photos and little official talk as to its existence. Yet these pictures may prove that the RQ-170, or an enhanced version of it, is capable of aerial refueling.
These images, obtained from a source that wishes to remain anonymous (and one that I would rate as good), show what appears to be the semi-autonomous (flown in a point and click manner from a desktop-like interface or totally on autopilot) RQ-170 or similar craft moving into pre-contact position behind an aerial tanker. The source also relayed to me that these photos were shot before the tanker plugged into the jet and started feeding it gas.
This video gives you an idea of what the much larger B-2 Spirit flying-wing stealth bomber looks like refueling as a comparison:
There have been previous reports that unmanned aircraft have been refueling from USAF tankers for years, and the technology has clearly been something that the USAF has been interested in developing since around 2006. It seems to have been in continuous public development using Calspan’s Learjet unmanned aircraft surrogate testbed since that date, before going quiet in recent years. This may be a sign that the capability finally went from public testing to secret operation. Otherwise, the technology shown to the public, with Boeing being one contractor for the system around the 2006 time frame and Northrop Grumman being the contractor around 2011, is really to test improved autonomous boom refueling methods, not to pioneer the idea from scratch.
If in fact the USAF has been refueling semi-autonomous unmanned aircraft for years in an operational, or even a testing manner, that revelation would make the X-47B’s recent aerial refueling accomplishment less of a revolution than it was portrayed to be in the public sphere. Although, the X-47B’s probe and drogue method of aerial refueling does represent unique challenges that the boom and receptacle method does not. As such, the X-47B’s accomplishment should still be seen as a remarkable move into the unmanned combat aircraft realm.
I was the first aviation journalist to come out with a full analysis on the RQ-170 shown in Iranian hands and labeled it legitimate while many others claimed the aircraft shown was a fake. Well over 40 articles later on the subject, I have to stress that advanced unmanned aircraft of the future will look more like movie props than traditional combat aircraft. This is a result of advanced, large and continuous structure composite construction capabilities born out of rapid prototyping advances and the demands of wide-band low observability (stealth).
Additionally, the Sentinel almost surely has grown up in what is probably approaching a decade or more of service. Has it migrated from spy drone to unmanned combat air vehicle? Possibly, and a ‘Super Sentinel” like craft has been rumored to exist for some time, for which Lockheed may have based its ‘Sea Ghost’ concept for the Navy’s UCLASS program, a production follow-on contract to the experimental X-47B program.
The photo below, obtained through a FOIA request by our friends at Medium/War Is Boring, that I identified as being taken at Andersen AFB in Guam, shows a Sentinel variation that has evolved from its lighter colored CIA cousin lost to the Iranians in 2011. Additionally, the very reason for it to be fully assembled and flying out of the remote island of Guam is suspect as well as it is considered a medium altitude, medium endurance unmanned system. This means it does not possess the extreme range of its larger, but similarly autonomous Global Hawk associate. We know that there have been issues with flying a semi-autonomous system out of South Korea, with the Global Hawk having to be based at Guam, or now Japan, to fly North Korean missions. At the same time, the RQ-170 was rumored to have performed missions over North Korea. Maybe the tanker photos shown today can answer the question of how such a mission was accomplished if the semi-autonomous drones have not been cleared to fly out of South Korean airspace.
So what do you think? Are these pictures legitimate or just Photoshop fakes, and if you think they are real, how do you see them changing the air combat equation?
Here are the full size images for your analysis:
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com