We Just Found Out the IT Bill for America’s Secret Drone
Three years of RQ-170 support costs $11 million
Thanks to one company’s celebratory press release, we now have our first firm information on the cost associated with the U.S. Air Force’s secretive RQ-170 stealth spy drone.
Virginia-based contractor Engility announced on April 24 that it had won a three-year, $11-million deal to support the Air Force’s fleet of roughly 20 flying-wing RQ-170s.
“Engility will provide mission planning, network administration, information assurance and security management support for worldwide real-world operations, training missions and simulations for the RQ-170,” the company stated.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin developed the RQ-170 in the early 2000s to complement non-stealthy Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk surveillance drones. The flying branch gave the jet-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicle the official name “Sentinel,” but operators took to calling it “Wraith,” a reference to its ability to evade radar detection—thanks to its smooth, sleek shape.
The Air Force assigned the unarmed, satellite-controlled RQ-170s to the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah, Nevada, part of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base in the same state. The Wraiths apparently helped spy on Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion—military pilots reported seeing a mysterious aircraft matching the RQ-170’s description.
Wraiths also spent time in Afghanistan, from where the approximately 60-foot-wingspan UAVs could easily reach Iran and Pakistan.
Starting in 2007, civilian photographers periodically spotted RQ-170s at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. According to the un-redacted footnotes in mostly redacted Air Force documents, in 2009 the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron toured America’s main Pacific air bases, apparently prepping the Wraiths to spy on China and North Korea.
The Air Force finally copped to the RQ-170’s existence in December 2009 but since then has said almost nothing about it. The Wraith doesn’t appear in public budget documents nor does the Air Force include the secretive drone in its routine force-structure adjustments.
The footnotes of redacted documents indicate that the Wraiths spent part of 2010 at Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates—a perfect staging base for spy flights over southern Iran. In May 2011, an RQ-170 reportedly watched from on high as Navy SEALs raided the compound in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was hiding, killing the Al Qaeda leader.
And in December 2011, an RQ-170 apparently malfunctioned along the Afghanistan-Iran border, possibly while snooping on Tehran’s nuclear program. The drone crashed and Iranian agents recovered its largely-intact airframe, subsequently displaying the damaged Wraith for propaganda purposes.
Obviously very busy, the Wraith fleet surely incurs a sizable support bill. But Engility’s press release included the first hard figures. To be sure, the $11 million the Air Force is paying Engility for three years of IT and other support services is a fraction of the Wraith’s overall expense.
For instance, it doesn’t appear that Engility’s people actually fly the RQ-170s—they simply support the military crews who do. We know only one Wraith operator by name. Bruce Black, an aerospace consultant, listed the Wraith as one of the aircraft he remotely piloted during his 28-year Air Force career.
It’s likely an RQ-170 costs at least as much per hour to operate as a non-stealthy, propeller-drive Reaper drone. A single Reaper costs at least $5 million a year to man, fix and fuel, according to the Air Force. On that basis, it’s probable that the estimated 20-strong RQ-170 fleet sets taxpayers back at least $100 million a year.