Pocket Force Of Stealthy Avenger Drones May Have Made Returning F-117s To Service Unnecessary

Avengers have flown over Syria and the secretive nature of who owns and operates the handful that have been delivered points to a clandestine program.

Tyson Rininger / www.tvrphotography.com

The War Zone recently outlined the logic behind persistent rumors that the U.S. Air Force, or some other U.S. government entity, might have regenerated some F-117A Nighthawk stealth combat jets for operations in the Middle East, most likely Syria, in recent years. We also noted that there’s absolutely no hard evidence to substantiate these claims. But there is a strong possibility that the United States did deploy another aircraft, a variant of the General Atomics Avenger drone, carrying the base designation Q-11, to meet a similar requirement for a stealthy, but armed platform that could strike high value and mobile targets in contested areas.

To quickly recap, on Mar. 2, 2019, Dutch online aviation magazine Scramble posted claims on their Facebook page regarding the possibility that some F-117As flew missions in the Middle East in 2017. If true, this would have likely occurred because of a demand for the Nighthawks' particular attributes, most notably it being a relatively quick and stealthly platform that is able to employ laser-guided bombs on moving targets. It also doesn't represent the high-end of U.S. aerospace technology, especially in terms of its low-observable design. As such, if one was lost, the technological risk wouldn't be catastrophic.

This is a capability gap the U.S. military had had since retiring the first-generation stealth jets in 2008 and only recently regained, at least publicly, with the integration of the GBU-49/B dual-mode Paveway precision guided bomb and associated software onto the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. You can read all about these issues in our previous post here.

Officially, most of the last of the Nighthawks are in "Type 1000" regenerative storage Tonopah Test Range Airport, where they have been since their formal retirement more than a decade ago. Between four and six have remained in flyable condition, and have flown fairly regularly, for years. The service’s stated plan has been to permanently dispose of them at a rate of four per year starting in 2017.

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An official picture of F-117As in storage at Tonopah.

But whether or not the United States sent F-117s back into combat or not, the requirements that would have prompted that deployment were still there. If the U.S. government had identified a target it wanted to strike clandestinely and that could be on the move in, say, Western Syria, an area full of Syrian air defenses, it would have had few, if any options, at least publicly, to carry out that mission without being easily detected. 

This bring us to the General Atomics Avenger, also known as the Predator C. The Air Force appears to have designated at least one variant of this drone the YQ-11 and there are likely be additional configurations, such as an operational MQ-11. These designations are wholly unrelated to AeroVironment’s RQ-11A and RQ-11B Ravens. At the time of writing, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) has not responded to our queries for clarification and additional details on this nomenclature. But more on this later.

The video below was General Atomics' vision for how Avengers would operate on the battlefield circa 2012.

Despite its initial name, this unmanned aircraft is distinct from the company’s earlier MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper designs, featuring a stealthy planform reminiscent of Northrop's Tacit Blue demonstrator and using a turbofan engine for greater power and speed than its propeller-driven family members. Avenger also has a much higher operational ceiling than the MQ-1 or MQ-9, being able to reach altitudes of around 50,000 feet.

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General Atomics Avenger in front of an MQ-1 Predator, at left, and an MQ-9 Reaper.

The latest iterations of the Avenger, which are substantially larger than the original prototype, have a cruising speed of around 400 miles per hour, more than twice that of a Reaper, and a maximum flight time of around 20 hours, depending on what payloads it is carrying. In 2016, General Atomics also flew a new variant of the drone, called the Avenger Extended Range (ER), for the first time. The Avenger ER has since demonstrated an ability to remain aloft for longer than 20 hours.

They also have the ability to carry weapons, including laser-guided bombs, in their internal payload bays, as well as additional stores on up to six underwing pylons. The Avenger can accommodate various sensor turrets with electro-optical, infrared, and multi-spectral cameras, as well as laser designators, on a retractable mount. This allows the drone to operate in maximum stealth mode until it reaches the target area.

These drones, which, like the F-117s, don't represent the cutting-edge of American low-observable technology, but would still be well suited to conducting discreet and flexible missions over less than welcoming airspace in Syria from bases in nearby neighboring countries. General Atomics says the drones can also self-deploy to a forward operating site or that C-17A Globemaster III or C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft can transport them and other supporting equipment to the desired location.

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An Avenger with various inert examples of the precision guided bombs it can carry internally on display in front.

Publicly, the Air Force has exactly one of these unmanned aircraft in its inventory, which it announced it was buying in 2011 under curious circumstances. An initial contracting notice said the service planned to send the drone to Afghanistan for tests, but this announcement was then “cancelled” and edited to redact the planned deployment location.

In December 2011, the Air Force denied that it had plans to send the Avenger to Afghanistan. The initial contracting notice had come shortly after an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone, likely flying from a base in Afghanistan, had crashed in neighboring Iran, leading some to speculate that the Avenger’s actual missions would be over that country. Another possibility was that it might fly from Afghan bases to conduct secretive strikes against terrorists and keep in an eye on the nuclear arsenal in Pakistan.

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An Avenger on the ground with its payload bay open.

What exactly the Air Force’s plans for the Avenger were or what it actually did with the drone remain unclear. An annual history of Air Combat Command (ACC), the service’s main warfighting command, for 2011 includes a section talking about both the Predator C and the then-ongoing MQ-X program, but the comments on the former are almost entirely redacted. The author previously obtained a copy of this document via the Freedom of Information Act.

“The next generation RPA [remotely piloted aircraft], or MQ-X as it was more commonly called, promised a more viable solution to meeting the Air Force's future unmanned ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] needs,” the historical review explains. “Unlike the Predator C which offered only minor improvements over the MQ-9, MQ-X had to be ‘survivable in a contested environment, weather tolerant, and have robust and agile communications.’”

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The entire, unredacted portions of the section on the Predator C and MQ-X from the 2011 ACC history.

This is curious commentary given that the Avenger can carry a significantly larger payload than the MQ-9, has a substantially greater cruise and dash speed, and offers stealthy capabilities that the Reaper does not. This same section says that by the end of 2011, ACC had begun discussions with the U.S. Navy about blending MQ-X with the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

In February 2012, the Air Force publicly cancelled MQ-X entirely. In retrospect, this is not surprising as anything having to do with advanced unmanned combat air vehicles had disappeared from the USAF's documentation and vernacular around that time. You can read all about this mysterious saga here. The unredacted portions of the 2012 annual history for ACC, which the author also got via FOIA, makes no mention of this program at all or of the final fate of the Air Force’s lone Avenger.

The Navy’s UCLASS turned into an entirely separate debacle, which you can read about in more detail here, resulting in a complete shift in requirements to an unmanned aircraft that would primarily serve as an aerial refueling tanker. Boeing is now on contract to build this drone, known as the MQ-25 Stingray. General Atomics had used the Avenger as a surrogate to test various technologies in support of its own ultimately failed bid for this program.

The Avenger’s history with the U.S. government didn’t end with MQ-X. As of 2017, General Atomics had confirmed the sale of the lone drone to the Air Force, but also the delivery of “up to seven” additional examples to an undisclosed U.S. government entity. The year before, the company also went on the record saying that someone had flown one of these unmanned aircraft over Syria to conduct a propaganda leaflet drop.  

We don’t know for sure who within the U.S. government owns or is flying the other Avengers, but Air Force Materiel Command's (AFMC) Detachment 3 flies the “YQ-11,” likely the sole example the Air Force "officially" owns, for test and evaluation purposes, as of 2019. This detachment is situated in Poway, California, home of General Atomics, according to a contracting announcement that appeared on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s main contracting website, in February 2019.

The detachment also has a so-called “operation location,” or OL-Det 3, spread between General Atomics’ Mojave Desert Flight Test Facilities at Gray Butte and El Mirage Airfields. The testing that Detachment 3 conducts, which also includes work on the MQ-9, supports ACC requirements, as well as those from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) by way of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

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A section from a recent contracting document mentionoing the YQ-11.

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Another section from another related contracting document describing AFMC, Detachment 3's mission and operating locations.

But the latest editions of the Air Force’s Flight Test Aircrew Training manuals, which the service published in 2017, certainly hint at the existence of other U.S. government Avengers and actual operational activities. These documents include entire sections covering the YQ-11, something that seems incongruous for a fleet of just one drone.

To retain their currency on this aircraft type, the Air Force says pilots and sensor operators must conduct landings using the drone’s electro-optical, infrared, and multi-spectral camera systems. It’s worth noting that Raytheon’s product page for its Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) says this system is found on the “MQ-9C,” another designation that has been associated with the Avenger. YQ-11 crews must also fly mission profiles at least simulating the employment of both missiles and bombs.

“Qualification in the YQ-11 does not count as qualification in any other aircraft except like YQ-11 series (Q-11X) requiring difference/conversion training,” one of the manuals says. The “Q-11X” reference suggests that there could be additional Q-11 variants, such as an MQ-11A, beyond the "prototype" YQ-11.

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YQ-11 proficiency requirements as described in Air Force Instruction 11-2FT, Flight Test Aircrew Training, Volume 1.

“In accordance with the 2011 defense appropriation act, the Air Force procured prototype demonstration capabilities of the Avenger system,” a spokesperson for the Air Force’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, a special projects office better known by the nickname Big Safari, told Flight Global in 2016. “The demonstration has completed and there are no current plans for future demonstrations."

But this wouldn’t preclude the Air Force from operating a separate, classified fleet of operational Avengers. It also wouldn’t prevent the service from being involved in some way with another U.S. government entity’s operation of those drones. Annual historical reviews for Big Safari for 2012, 2013, and 2014, which the author obtained via FOIA, make no mention of Predator C, Avenger, or YQ-11 in any way, though they do have a category simply labeled “Classified Programs.”

Tyson V. Rininger / www.tvrphotography.com

In addition, all of this could fit in with what is known, and still unknown, about the Air Force’s top-secret 44th Reconnaissance Squadron, which we at The War Zone were first to report on in detail in 2018. The service will not tell us what type or types of unmanned aircraft this unit operates.

The 44th has its own convoluted history tracing back to the activation of a separate, secretive entity known as the 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1. The 732nd as a whole has connections to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Previous media reports have suggested the group acts as a cover for or is otherwise tied in with the CIA’s top-secret drone operations.

Flightlineinsignia.com

A patch for the 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1, showing motifs in common with the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, which flies the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone. This insignia also has the text "Forging the Sword" along with a lightning bolt, sword, and droplets of blood, suggesting this unit had other missions beyond intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

All of this brings us back to the F-117 rumors. There remains no evidence that these Nighthawk deployments ever occurred.

There are, however, the on-the-record statements from General Atomics that a U.S. government agency, widely understood to be the CIA, possibly in cooperation with the Air Force, has a fleet of Avengers. There have been no other publicly acknowledged sales of this drone to the U.S. government or any other country.

The drone's manufacturer has also revealed that at least one Avenger was flying over Syria at the same time when the rumors about F-117s heading back to combat were first emerging. The Avenger would have been able to meet many of the same requirements for stealthy, armed platform able to engage static and moving targets that was far faster, and therefore more responsive, than other unmanned aircraft available in the region.

The 44th also officially stood up in April 2015, which would have given it months to reach at least initial operational capability ahead of an actual deployment the following year. This unit’s activation could have provided a cover for a much more mature Avenger program under the auspices of the CIA, as well.

We also know that Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Abu Khayr Al Masri, died in what appeared to be an air strike on his car involving a special low-collateral damage munition in Syria’s western Idlib governorate in February 2017. More recently, The Washington Post reported, citing anonymous sources, that President Donald Trump had pushed the CIA to begin arming unspecified drones under its control flying over Syria after taking office the month before. Trump also reportedly received a briefing from the Agency about unique air-dropped munitions designed to avoid civilian casualties.

This strike on Al Masri’s car is exactly the kind of mission profile – a high value target in a moving vehicle traveling in a denied area where American manned platforms don't generally go – that seemed to explain why the Air Force or the CIA might have turned to the mothballed F-117s at all. It’s also an operation that an Avenger could have performed and fits almost perfectly with the details and timeline regarding CIA drone operations in The Post’s subsequent reporting.

With all this in mind, the small but critical gap that needed filling over Syria, and possibly over other countries in the Middle East, both friendly and not so friendly, could very well have been filled by the diminutive, but adaptable and relatively low-risk Avenger fleet that currently lives in the darkness. That's not to say that the mothballed F-117 force wasn't possibly evaluated to fulfill this role, but taking the human out of cockpit, as well as leveraging the long-endurance capabilities of the Avenger may have been an all too logical alternative. 

There's also the possibility that both airframes were put to use to fulfill a similar mission set. The presence of one in the region doesn't necessarily preclude the other. Especially if the F-117s were assigned to the Air Force and the Avengers were CIA assets. But we know for a fact that a handful of Avengers are flying under some classified umbrella for a certain government agency and that they have been active in the Middle East, and Syria, in particular. The claims that the F-117s were returned to service and deployed to the region, on the other hand, come without any hard evidence at all.

If the Avenger has quietly stalked and killed high value targets in sensitive airspace, the program is far more successful than anyone has been allowed to let on.

Author's note: A special thanks to Tyson Rininger for allowing to use his amazing photo as the banner image in this article. Make sure to check out all his work here.

Contact the author at tyler@thedrive.com