America’s Stealth Drone Posed in Guam
Air Force photo depicts RQ-170 at Pacific air base
The U.S. Air Force doesn’t say much about its radar-evading RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone—the batwing robot that news photographers first spotted at an airfield in Afghanistan in 2007.
But a close reading of the scant info the flying branch has made public helps us fill in the gaps. We can assert that the Sentinel is a regular visitor to the sprawling Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, from where the flying branch and the Navy keep a close eye on China and North Korea.
War Is Boring obtained a heavily-redacted copy of Air Combat Command’s official history for 2011. Censors removed the entire entry for the RQ-170 … but left the grainy header photo.
The image, reproduced at top and below, might seem generic, but in fact it includes one very revealing detail. In the distance behind the drone is a distinctive structure.
That structure is Andersen’s aircraft maintenance hangar, which Burns & McDonnell, along with Black Construction Company, built for the Navy in 2005. The huge, 51,000-square-foot building “provides maintenance and reliable shelter to B-1B, B-2, B-52, KC-135, F-22 and other aircraft that cannot be flown off the island before a typhoon,” according to Burns & McDonnell’s Website.
It’s safe to say the RQ-170 is another occasional resident.
Now, we don’t know when the Air Force took the photo of the drone with the hangar in the background. But it seems likely that the official historians would choose a recent and relevant photo to illustrate the official recap of the RQ-170’s activities in 2011.
And that tells us that drone was probably back in Guam two years after its apparent first visit.
According to Air Combat Command’s 2009 history—also heavily redacted—the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, normally based in Nevada, deployed at least one Sentinel to Andersen from Jan. 15 to Feb. 16, 2009.
In August 2009, U.S. Pacific Command issued a “concept of operations” document, or CONOP, meant to establish the methods and goals of flying RQ-170s in the Pacific. It’s possible the drone’s winter visit to Guam helped planners write the CONOP.
Concept document in hand, it would make sense for the Air Force to send Sentinels back to Andersen on a regular basis. The flying branch spies intensively on China, using a large fleet of sophisticated manned surveillance planes—at least one of which is at a U.S. airfield near Chinese territory any given day of the year.
Andersen is also a staging base for recon and bomber flights near North Korea. The RQ-170’s possible Guam visits are particularly interesting in light of the bomber rotations.
In October 2012, the Air Force paired a Sentinel with a B-2 stealth bomber for an important test in New Mexico. The B-2 dropped a 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb designed to destroy deeply-buried bunkers—the kind North Korea builds to protect its commanders and weapons.
Meanwhile, the RQ-170 flew overhead to assess the results of the trial attack run—a clear indication that the Air Force plans to send the stealth bomber and stealth drone into combat together.
Potentially launching from Guam.