This new "Super Sentinel" could stay aloft for weeks with help from local fuel tankers

Outside of small battery operated drones (aka "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs)), most military drones run on the same thing that traditional combat aircraft do -- fossil fuels.  But fuel is, of course, a finite resource limiting the range of the U.S. military's fleet of fully-controlled and semi-autonomous drones.  Newly leaked photos reveal that the military may at long last have a dramatically improved solution for that -- at least for certain bleeding-edge drone models.

I. Boom Appears to Refuel Drone in Leaked Photos

The photos were obtained by Gawker Media's Jalopnik on the subsite "Foxtrot Alpha."  The author of the piece, Tyler Rogoway says he "would rate as good" the source of the photos.  He also states that the source "wishes to remain anonymous."  

The photos depict a drone craft preparing to refuel (the actual connection isn't shown, but the source say it happened soon thereafter).  Here's the original photos:



And here's a set of brightness/tint autocorrected versions I created in Photoshop:



Assuming these are authentic, they are a big deal for two reasons.  First, to date the only photographic evidence we have of the U.S. military employing aerial refueling on a drone comes from a Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) release from last month, in which the defense contractor offered up photographic proof that its U.S. Navy unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator, the X-47B, successfully sipped fuel delivered from a Omega KC-707 tanker (a modified Boeing Comp. (BA) 707) via a probe-and-drogue approach.

Northrop Grumman billed this as a "historic" "first autonomous aerial refueling."

Probe-and-drogue is impressive, but it's a slow means of refueling.  A more technically challenging, but quicker means of aerial refueling is the boom and receptacle technique.  To date this is the first known photographic proof of an unmanned military drone receiving a boom-based refuel.

That said this doesn't come as a complete surprise because the U.S. military have been long discussing drone refueling and the possibility of future boom-based technologies.  Rogoway comments:

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.

Second, the photograph is meaningful as it provides evidence that a new spy drone is aloft.  As the craft has a slightly different appearance from any previously pictured drone, it is thus rumored to be a new model -- possibly the rumored "Super Sentinel" design.

II. RQ-170 "Sentinel" -- Lockheed's Sleek Spy Drone With a Stealth Suit

To understand what these mean, let's first talk about the RQ-170.  The above photos look somewhat like the RQ-170, only a little different.  Before I get to what's different, let's first recollect on the history of the RQ-170.

The RQ-170 is one of America's most high-tech spy drones and one of the few military drones worldwide to be equipped with significant stealth technology.  It fall under the class of aircraft known as "flying wing" craft.  Perhaps the most iconic manned flying wing craft is Northrop Grumman's jet black B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

The RQ-170 isn't anywhere near as big as the B-2, but it's still a relatively large drone with a wingspan measuring 66 feet (20 m), according to unofficial estimates.  Its "RQ" code in its name indicates that it carries no weapons.

Used by the U.S. Military and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the RQ-170 is semi-autonomous and designed to conduct sensitive surveillance tasks.  The RQ-170 was designed by the Advanced Development Programs division of defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) (a division commonly known as "Skunk Works") under the project name "Sentinel".  The RQ-170 is widely believed to be based on two prior classified Skunk Works designs -- "Polecat" and the RQ-3 "DarkStar".

The Beast of Kandahar

The RQ-170 is believed to have been first deployed in 2005 and by 2007 was rumored to be use in Afghanistan, based in part on grainy photographs of an unknown drone flying around a U.S. airstrip in Kandahar.  It was subsequently dubbed "The Beast of Kandahar" (paywalled) by Bill Sweetman, a blogger on Aviation Week's "Over on Ares" column.  The name stuck.

The RQ-170 was officially speaking the stuff of rumors until 2009, when the USAF published a confirmation of its existence.

Still we didn't have a definitive look at the craft until December 2011 when Iranian officials used electronic spoofing to trick a RQ-170 flying over their airspace into landing.  After the capture, the U.S. military acknowledged the existence of the drone.

The captured RQ-170 Spy Drone [Image Source: ABC News]

It was later confirmed via leaked government documents to have been used -- in conjunction with Lockheed Martin's autonomous X-37B space plane (a possibility which I was among the first to suggest) -- to conduct surveillance in Afghanistan of the hideout of Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.  With the help of that surveillance, Osama Bin Laden was successfully killed in a May 2011 special operations raid by U.S. Navy Seals.

RQ-170 photos of Bin Laden complex
These photos released by the CIA, show the complex Osama bin Laden was hiding in.  They are believed to have come from an RQ-170 spy drone.

So that's a near summary, but how does it relate to this leak?

III. Super Sentinel Cometh?

Well, according to Rogoway the photos appear to depict a slightly different variant of the RQ-170.  He teases:

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?

He suggests that the new craft could potentially be targeted at long range missions, such as surveillance of North Korea (or Russia).  His first presented evidence comes from an official government photograph obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 (5 U.S.C. § 552) lawsuit filed by Medium/War Is Boring.

normal version
An unknown RQ-170 variant is seen in this FOIA released image. [Image Source: Medium/War is Boring]

Here's a version with slightly different color settings (the original may actually be more accurate, but I'm posting it for the sake of armchair analysis):

color corrected leaked photo
[Image Source: Medium/War is Boring]

That photograph appear to be taken at the U.S. Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) in Guam, according to Rogoway's analysis.  He points out that in addition to the slightly different color and body shape, the choice of an airfield suggests some sort of experimental long-range mission, given that the semi-autonomous Northrop Grumman RQ-4 "Global Hawk" drone is believed to be in use for some of its spy missions from the Andersen AFB in Guam.

Further, as Rogoway states, there's been a lot of movement since the RQ-170 first started popping up.  Notably, Lockheed Martin won a $15M USD contract under the U.S. Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program to develop a flying wing drone known as "Sea Ghost".  The Sea Ghost design was a follow-on of sorts to the X-47B contract awarded to Northrop Grumman.  With prototypes of the "Sea Ghost" finished, Lockheed is believed to now be in competition with Boeing (whose flying wing "Phantom Ray" drone was pretty slick itself), Northrop Grumman, and others to produce a finished drone [source].

Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin's Sea Ghost prototype was delivered as part of the Navy's UCLASS program.

Lockheed has further been remotely flying unmanned F-16 combat jets at Mach speeds, further fueling speculation about an semi-autonomous combat drone.

Rogoway suggests that the production version of Sea Ghost and successor to "Sentinel" (the RQ-170) might be called the "Super Sentinel".  And it may be armed (and thus drop the "RQ" for 'X').

While Rogoway suggests that the color of the pictured craft is darker than the white-painted RQ-170, but that could partially an effect of the image lighting and the choice of operational coloring (white is often used for craft paint in desert operations).  However, otherwise his hypotheses about the timing seem to line up.

Looking at the side humps/engines they look a bit more pronounced in the pictured craft, although that could be an optical effect from the angle of the shot.  The craft doesn't look like the artist's sketch of the Sea Ghost released by Lockheed, but it could very well be a new craft.  Ultimately it's hard to say due to the lack of published images of the RQ-170.  Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating possibility atop an otherwise noteworthy achievement.

Source: FoxTrot Alpha (Jalopnik)

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