Starting at least four years ago, the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency secretly and systematically surrounded Iran with America’s most high-tech, radar-evading spy drones.
In December 2011, one of the 60-foot-wingspan RQ-170 Sentinel drones, probably flying from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, crashed on the Iran-Pakistan border and was seized by Iranian forces. The Sentinel presumably had been surveilling Iran—specifically, Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
The crash revealed one arc of the stealth drone cordon around Iran. The other arc, apparently anchored south of Iran in the United Arab Emirates, has never been revealed before now.
Sometime in 2010, it appears that the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron—a combined Air Force and CIA unit normally based in remote Tonopah, Nevada—deployed some of its estimated 20 Sentinels to Al Dhafra, a sprawling air base in the UAE where the Pentagon stages many of its most sophisticated spy planes for patrols near Iran.
According to heavily-redacted official documents obtained by War is Boring through the Freedom of Information Act, on Sept. 14, 2010, the Air Force’s Air Combat Command—the headquarters that oversees the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron—circulated an internal memo discussing the “pre-deployment site survey” for placing some of the satellite-controlled RQ-170s in the Emirates.
The RQ-170s were built by Lockheed Martin in the early 2000s and helped spy on Iraq during the 2003 invasion. One of the distinctive, bat-shaped ‘bots was photographed by a journalist at Kandahar airfield in 2007. In 2009, the Air Force copped to the Sentinel’s existence, but released no details. An RQ-170 reportedly orbited overhead as Navy SEALs raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011, killing the Al Qaeda leader.
Another version of Air Combat Command’s Sentinel survey memo circulated on Sept. 27, 2010—this one specifying Al Dhafra air base as the stealth drones’ destination. Sentinels, like the non-stealthy Predator and Reaper spy drones also used by the Air Force and CIA, apparently deploy in groups of at least three, allowing one to be airborne over the target area around the clock, while the others are in transit or under repair.
Having surveyed Al Dhafra for Sentinel basing and apparently cleared the massive facility for hosting the secretive robot planes, on Oct. 7, 2010, a U.S. Air Force delegation met with a counterpart group from the UAE Air Force, a strong ally of the American flying branch that operates U.S.-made Predators and F-16s.
Based on the documents we obtained via FOIA, the topic of the meeting seemed to have been the RQ-170—although it’s unclear exactly what the officers said about the drone.
In any event, the surveys and meeting paved the way for Sentinels to fly from Al Dhafra. Lacking additional documentary evidence, we can only assume that the elusive ‘bots actually did deploy to the desert airfield shortly thereafter. It’s hard to imagine that the Air Force would go to the trouble of clearing Al Dhafra for the stealth drones unless the flying branch truly intended to send them there.
While the Emirates’ air base is convenient to the entire Persian Gulf, the American aircraft at the facility, including high-flying U-2 photo-recon birds and four-engine E-3 radar planes, traditionally focus their attention on Iran.
The Air Force and Navy also both base RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drones at Al Dhafra. In late 2013, the Navy contracted with RQ-4-builder Northrop Grumman to nearly double the frequency of its robotic missions near Iran to 15 a month.
The stealthy Sentinel solved a worsening problem for U.S. forces around Iran. In recent years, Tehran’s ramshackle but increasingly aggressive air force has begun intercepting American drones near Iranian air space.
In November 2012, an Iranian Su-25 attack jet fired its gun at an MQ-1 Predator but missed. In March 2013, an Iranian F-4 fighter intercepted another Predator but was chased off by a U.S. F-22 stealth fighter that slipped in underneath the 1960s-vintage F-4.
The Predators and other spy planes are unable to avoid detection and sometimes need rescuing. But the Sentinels can fly independently, using their hard-to-detect shape and, presumably, radar-absorbing coating to dodge Iranian sensors.
Until an RQ-170 crashed on the Afghan-Iranian border, it’s possible Tehran had no idea the drones were even probing its air space—and indeed had the country surrounded.