The “RQ” designation indicates that the RQ-170 Sentinel does not carry weapons. Aviation Week’s David A. Fulghum believes that the UAV is probably a “tactical, operations-oriented platform and not a strategic intelligence-gathering design”.
The USAF confirmed the “grainy photos of a gray, flying-wing-typed unmanned airplane near Kandahar Airfield” in relation to the discussion of the RQ-170 Sentinel on 4 December 2009. A USAF colonel subsequently commented that RQ-170 is separate from the MQ-X program, which has yet to determine stealth or powerplant requirements, and thus the Sentinel will not replace the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones currently in service. As of May 2011, the US Military had not released any statements concerning the Sentinel since December 2009.
The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron operates RQ-170 Sentinels. This squadron, which is based at Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada, was activated on 1 September 2005. RQ-170 Sentinels have been deployed to Afghanistan, where one was sighted at Kandahar International Airport in late 2007. This sighting, and the Sentinel’s secret status at the time, led Bill Sweetman to dub it the “Beast of Kandahar”. The UAV being deployed to Afghanistan, despite the Taliban having no radar, has led to speculation that the aircraft is being used to spy on Pakistan or Iran.
In December 2009, South Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper reported that the RQ-170 Sentinel had been test-flown in South Korea for the past few months and that it was expected that they would be permanently deployed in 2010 to replace Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft operating from Osan Air Base. In response to this report, Bill Sweetman argued that the Sentinel’s deployments to Afghanistan and South Korea were probably undertaken to monitor Pakistan and North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.
In August 2010 it was reported that RQ-170s either had been or were about to be redeployed to Afghanistan and that the UAVs had been fitted with a full motion video capability. The missions performed by these aircraft included flying dozens of high altitude sorties over Pakistan to monitor a compound in the town of Abbottabad where terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was believed to be living. On the night of ½ May 2011 at least one RQ-170 monitored the area while elements of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group launched an assault on the compound which resulted in bin Laden’s death. The aircraft provided footage of the attack which was watched live by President Barack Obama and his senior national security advisors. The RQ-170 also monitored Pakistani military radio transmissions in the area to provide warning of the response to the attack. On 27 May the Los Angeles Times reported that Pakistani officials were “alarmed” by the use of the RQ-170 over their country as the drones are “designed to evade radar and other surveillance systems, and can be used as a spy plane”.