Details Emerge About The Secretive RQ-170 Stealth Drone's First Trip To Korea

Documents describe the unique planning that went into bringing the flying-wing reconnaissance drones to the Korean Peninsula and more.

USAF via FOIA/Google Earth

More than a decade after the U.S. Air Force officially confirmed its existence, details about the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone and its operational exploits remain extremely limited. Now, newly released documents offer additional insights into the deployment of some of these secretive flying-wing unmanned aircraft to South Korea in 2009.

The Air Force officially ordered the deployment of RQ-170s to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea on Sept. 4, 2009. Elements of 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, the only unit publicly known to fly the Sentinels, as well as supporting personnel from other units, first touched down at the South Korean base on Oct. 2, 2009. These and other details are included in records related to the RQ-170 that The War Zone recently obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The fact that RQ-170s operated from South Korea in late 2009 is not new, with South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo first reporting about the deployment in December of that year. In 2013, War Is Boring confirmed that the Sentinels had previously traveled to the Korean Peninsula based on previous documents the author obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. 

USAF via FOIA

An undated picture of an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone on Guam that the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

However, it has long been known that certain details in the original JoongAng Ilbo report were wrong. This includes that the RQ-170s were only being test flown in the country at that time, rather than conducting operational sorties, and that the Air Force planned for the Sentinels to ultimately supplant its manned U-2S Dragon Lady spy planes, which remain forward-deployed in South Korea to this day. 

Much about the deployment still remains classified, despite the passage of time and even the prior official release of some information. For instance, Air Force censors removed any specific mention of the RQ-170 whatsoever, including in the subject line, from the official Air Combat Command deployment order, dated Sept. 4, 2009, despite having publicly released the title of that document seven years ago. We know that this is the document in question, because we requested it by name and the Air Force acknowledged that it was among the records it released to us with redactions.

Regardless, from this heavily redacted document, we can see that the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, had issued a planning order for the RQ-170 deployment to South Korea on June 2, 2009. It's not clear what, if any event or events, in particular, might have prompted Mullen and his staff to initiate this plan, but North Korea had conducted its second-ever nuclear test at its Punggye-ri test site on May 25 of that year. The regime in Pyongyang had also fired the Unha-2 space launch vehicle, the second in a series of large rockets the U.S. and other countries believed acted as a cover for work on technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles, from its launch facility in Sohae on April 5. Punggye-ri is in the northeastern end of North Korea, while Sohae is on the other side of the country along the coast of the East China Sea. Kunsan is also situated close to the East China Sea.

USAF via FOIA

The first page of Air Combat Command's order regarding the deployment of the RQ-170s to South Korea in 2009.

Previous documents the author obtained show that the Air Force had also sent a detachment of RQ-170s to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam earlier in 2009, where they worked to develop concepts of operation for future Pacific deployments. Bill Sweetman and David Fulghum reported for Aviation Week in 2012 that the Central Intelligence Agency had also been involved in supporting the initial deployments of the Sentinels to Afghanistan, where the first public pictures of the drone emerged, and the Korean Peninsula. 

There is no mention of the CIA in the unredacted portions of the documents the Air Force released to The War Zone regarding the 2009 deployment to South Korea, but that doesn't mean it wasn't involved. The Agency has long-standing ties to elements of the 432nd Wing, including the secretive 732nd Operations Group, which the Air Force created in 2012 to oversee the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, as well as a number of other drone units.

We do know that the National Security Agency (NSA), as well as Air Combat Command itself, did produce risk assessments regarding the proposed missions in East Asia after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's office issued the planning order. The Air Force completely redacted or otherwise withheld details about these reviews – including a memorandum from then-Major General David Goldfein, who was Air Combat Command's Director of Air and Space Operations at the time – and a "special operational airworthiness release" for the RQ-170. 

USAF via FOIA

An almost completely redacted memo discussing risk assessments ahead of the deployment of RQ-170s to South Korea in 2009..

However, the Air Force did describe the NSA's assessment as specifically looking into the "intelligence gain loss," which suggests analysts considered the value of potential intelligence to be gained from employing the stealth drones operationally, almost certainly over North Korea, against what could be at stake if the drone's capabilities were to be compromised. This kind of risk-reward assessment would make good sense for the deployment of any sensitive asset, especially one such as the RQ-170, the existence of which was not even publicly acknowledged until Dec. 4, 2009. It seems especially prudent in light of the loss of one of the Sentinels inside Iran two years later.

Whatever the findings of the risk assessments in 2009 were in the end, Joint Forces Command ultimately ordered the deployment of the RQ-170s to Kunsan in South Korea on Sept. 4 of that year. "Airlift has arrived!" Major General Thomas Andersen, then Director of Requirements for Air Combat Command, wrote in an Email to then-Major General William Fraser, who was head of Air Combat Command at the time, on Oct. 2.

"Airlift, with main body, logistics, and Air Vehicles arrived Kunsan AB," Andersen continued. "Set up activities commencing."

USAF via FOIA

The exact size of the contingent and how many Sentinels the Air Force ultimately sent is unclear. It's also not clear if any contractors from the drone's manufacturer Lockheed Martin supported the deployment to South Korea, although we can confirm now that the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron was, at least, conducting its basic day-to-day operations in the United States at the time with help from the company.

USAF via FOIA

A mention of Lockheed Martin providing contractor support to the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron from one of the documents The War Zone recently obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

However, the deployment order calls for the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, the wing that the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron falls under, to "provide one each (two total) QFEB2 security forces UTC for duration of deployment." The Air Force Unit Type Code (UTC) "QFEB2" is for a standardized 13-person Security Forces Squad that can provide "resource protection and weapon system security." 

The requirement for "one each" and "two total" strongly suggests that Air Force sent two Sentinels to Kunsan, each of which required its own security force.

USAF via FOIA

Another page from the 2009 RQ-170 deployment order discussing security forces requirements. Air Force censors also completely redacted the tasks that the 99th Air Base Wing and the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing were supposed to perform. The 99th oversees operations at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, while the 480th, headquartered at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, but with units spread across the country, is responsible for various intelligence collection, processing, and dissemination activities.

Somewhat curiously, despite the extremely sensitive nature of the RQ-170, the Air Force placed the drones, the ground control stations, and the other elements supporting the deployment under the control of the 8th Fighter Wing, the main unit at Kunsan. The 607th Air Operations Center at Osan Air Base, situated to the north of Kunsan, also helped oversee the Sentinels' operations, but the 8th remained responsible for "mission planning and execution," according to the deployment order.

USAF via FOIA

The portion of the deployment order discussion command relationships.

The attachment of the RQ-170s and their associated personnel to the 8th Fighter Wing would help explain the existence of a unit patch for an "8th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron" that is tied to a deployment of the stealth drones to South Korea. It is unclear whether this squadron officially existed or if this was an unofficial or cover designation, but the patch features the same blackbird found on the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron's official insignia, in this case standing over U.S. and South Korean Flags, as well as the Korean Peninsula in the background.

The patch for the "8th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron," at left, and the official insignia of the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, the only publicly known unit to fly the RQ-170, at right.

In addition, the Air Force's deployment order says that U.S. and South Korean personnel not directly involved in the RQ-170's activities on the Peninsula would only get unclassified information about the drones and their mission on "a need to know basis." There was also mention of the potential for "static display and photography" with the approval of Headquarters, Air Force, but it is unknown whether or not the drones were actually shown to anyone, including South Korean officials. 

USAF via FOIA

The portion of the deployment order that talks about operational security and public affairs protocols.

There was certainly no public display or even official acknowledgment of the deployment to Kunsan at the time. Still, the author had previously obtained an undated picture of one of the Sentinels on Guam, seen toward the beginning of this story, possibly from the deployment of the drones there earlier in 2009, which shows that it has been possible to get approval for internal static displays and photography.

Unfortunately, there is no additional information about the actual sorties the RQ-170s flew from Kunsan or how long the drones remained deployed there. The Sentinels are understood to have a modular centerline payload bay that can accept a sensitive active electronically-scanned array radar with a synthetic aperture imaging and ground-moving target indicator capability. The unmanned aircraft are very likely also equipped to be able to carry electronic intelligence systems and electronic warfare suites at the time and their capabilities have no doubt expanded since then.

The RQ-170s would have offered an extremely valuable tool for collecting highly precise intelligence data on sensitive North Korean sites, including those related to the country's nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs. They may have also been employed to track the movements of important members of the regime in Pyongyang, including then-premier Kim Jong Il and individuals close to him, which might have exposed or underscored the significance of certain locations. 

Google Earth

A satellite image of Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.

It's also interesting to note that an Email string from December 2009, regarding what was and wasn't classified about the RQ-170 program following its official disclosure, which The War Zone also received as part of the recent release of documents, includes a message from an unnamed colonel in Air Combat Command's Advanced Concepts Branch (A8Z) stating that the drone is not actually "very low observable," or VLO, despite earlier comments from other individuals within the command about the unmanned aircraft's stealthy qualities. This same Email also mentions Aviation Week's contemporary reporting on the Sentinels.

When it comes to stealthy aircraft, a very low observable design would be one where stealth is the absolute top consideration, which often comes at a high price and performance tradeoffs. A less extensive low observable design, while still stealthy, would balance those features against other factors, such as cost, reliability, and the sensitivity of the design elements and other technologies involved.

USAF via FOIA

A portion of the December 2009 Email chain The War Zone obtained via the Freedom of Information Act showing unnamed Air Force colonel within Air Combat Command's Advanced Concepts Branch (A8Z) telling Major General Andersen that he would not describe the RQ-170 as "VLO" or "very low observable." It also mentions Aviation Week's reporting at the time. It's unclear what the redacted portions may refer to, but they could be references to reports that the drones had been seen at the Area 51 test site. These could also be references to the drone's time in Afghanistan. That the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron was based at the secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport at the time and was in the process of relocating elements to Creech Air Force Base was not classified, even at the time, and is unredacted elsewhere in the Email chain, making it unlikely that either of those locations are blacked out here.

USAF via FOIA

Another portion of the Email string showing the extent of unclassified details regarding the RQ-170 as of December 2009, including the statement that the drone was "VLO," which the colonel from Air Combat Command's Advanced Concepts Branch (A8Z) later said not to use to describe the platform.

Of course, at the same time, this is only one Email and its not clear if this colonel's position was a hard fact or opinion. It's also possible that the officer was simply advising against publicly describing the drone as "very low observable" for operational security reasons.

It's also not clear if the Air Force has sent RQ-170s back to South Korea for more missions in East Asia, but it seems highly probable that the service has carried out additional deployments of the drones there over the past decade. A heavily redacted internal Air Force history covering the activities of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency during the 2013 calendar year, which the author obtained previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, did say that a still classified aerial intelligence platform was flying operations in the Pacific region at that time. 

USAF via FOIA

The portion of the 2013 Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency history noting that "the aforementioned [redated]" was among the service's aircraft flying "national collection missions" in the Pacific region.

Even after more than a decade of service, the Sentinels remain an ideal, if not totally unique asset for penetrating into and loitering over denied areas, such as North Korea, to conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions. Those kinds of capabilities would have been in extremely high demand amid North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons testing blitz that began in 2016. 

When the North Koreans fired the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time on July 4, 2017, the U.S. government reportedly watched "the missile being fueled w/ liquid fuel" just prior to launch. This would have been exactly the kind of mission the RQ-170 was designed to carry out, something The War Zone noted at the time.

Just last month, U.S. aerial intelligence platforms also stepped up their monitoring of the insular regime again after a "strategic test" of a large rocket motor and threats to send the Trump Administration a "Christmas gift."

We also know that RQ-170s were flying over Iran and Pakistan in 2011, in the latter case surveilling the compound in Abbottabad where Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden before and during the U.S. special operations forces raid that led to his death that year. The drones have also been supporting various test and evaluation activities in the United States since then.

All told, more than 10 years after the Air Force officially disclosed the RQ-170's existence to the world, the majority of its operational history remains shrouded in secrecy. We have now been able to get more information about the deployment of the stealth drones to South Korea in 2009, which is hopefully a sign that more details about these unmanned aircraft and what they've been up to will continue to emerge in the coming months and years.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com