Declassified Docs Offer New Details About A Growing RQ-170 "Wraith" Force
The Air Force has been flying the stealthy RQ-170 for nearly a decade and a half, but has been very slow to disclose details about them.
The existence of the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone has been an acknowledged fact for more than 10 years now, and they've been flying for even longer, but the U.S. Air Force still offers few official details about their capabilities or their operational exploits. Now, newly declassified documents confirm that testing and evaluation of at least some of these unmanned aircraft continued at the secretive Tonopah Test Range in Nevada for a time after the main unit flying them formally moved to Creech Air Force Base in that same state. These records also provided details about plans to increase the size of the overall RQ-170 force and additional confirmation that these drones have an informal nickname, "Wraith."
The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, the first unit publicly known to operate the RQ-170, officially moved from Tonopah to Creech on Aug. 30, 2011. This squadron had stood up, after decades of inactivity, to support the Sentinel program on Sept. 1, 2005. The unit had been reassigned to the 432nd Wing at Creech from the 57th Wing, one of the Air Force's premier test and evaluation units, at Nellis Air Force Base also in Nevada, on May 1, 2007.
"The 30 RS [Reconnaissance Squadron] ... performed remotely piloted aircraft testing and evaluation, with an eye to the development of advanced tactics, techniques and procedures," a section of the official annual history of the 432nd Wing for 2010 reads. "On 22 November 2010, after the activation of a separate organization to pick up remaining testing duties at Tonopah, the Air Combat Command's Advanced Programs Division asked the major command's Basing Division to facilitate the relocation of the 30 RS to Creech as expeditiously as they could."
The War Zone obtained this internal history, as well as a number of other documents related to the RQ-170, via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
A separate Email, dated Nov. 22, 2010, sent from a Colonel within Air Combat Command's Advanced Programs Division, abbreviated ACC/A8Z, and a civilian official at that command's Basing Division, or ACC/A5B, among others, identifies the entity that was stood up at Tonopah to take over RQ-170 testing as Operating Location W (OL-W). The name of the official who sent this Email and those of all of the recipients have been redacted.
The existence of OL-W at Tonopah was mentioned in an annual history of Air Combat Command for 2010, which the author previously obtained through the FOIA, but with no additional information provided as to its purpose.
The internal 432nd Wing history, as seen in the section of that document embedded earlier in this story, does show that the desire to move the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron to Creech was more than two years in the making before it actually happened. The Air Force completed an environmental impact analysis in June 2009 regarding the relocation of the squadron and then-Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley approved the plan the following month.
It's unclear what held up the actual movement from taking place, but operational security concerns could easily have played a part. Tonopah has long offered a secluded location to support the development and testing of advanced and otherwise sensitive aircraft, including covertly acquired foreign types, and even as a base for operational units equipped with top-secret designs, such as the F-117 Nighthawk stealth combat jet.
A memorandum from the leadership of the 432nd Wing, dated April 23, 2010, expressly prohibits anyone from talking about the RQ-170s and their capabilities to unauthorized individuals or taking any pictures or video of the drones, under threat of possible disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. That same document also refers to these unmanned aircraft by the nickname Wraith, rather than the official name, Sentinel.
Even so, Creech sits right along a highway, where it is far more difficult to keep their flight operations entirely concealed. Tonopah would remain far better suited to testing and evaluating the RQ-170, especially examples in new configurations that might include distinctive external features.
David Axe first reported the existence of this informal moniker, based on documents this author had previously obtained through the FOIA, back in 2014. This appears to be only the second official confirmation of it being used for the RQ-170. Of course, it's not uncommon for military aircraft, including in the U.S. military, to have a second nickname in addition to the formal one, such as Viper for the F-16, rather than Fighting Falcon, or Warthog for the A-10, instead of Thunderbolt II.
The service itself said that "ironically" it was its own bureaucracy that finally got things going. "Concerned with the impact of imminent personnel assignments on the small unit of [redacted] highly specialized officers, enlisted and civilians, the Advanced Programs Division hoped to install the 30th at Creech before the end of January 2011," the 432nd Wing history explained.
As of November 2010, the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron officially had 41 officers, 70 enlisted personnel, and 3 civilians, according to another declassified document.
Interesting, parts of the 2009 environmental impact analysis that the Air Force released to The War Zone, seen below, say that a driving factor for the proposed move from Tonopah to Creech was that unit, referred to in that report only as an "Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Squadron," was expected to "see an increase in equipment and personnel over the next year," growing to approximately 175 individuals, 100 of which would be military personnel, while the remaining 75 would be contractors.
It's not clear if the planned "plus-up" came to fruition after the squadron's relocation in 2011 or if it involved the addition of any new airframes. The number of RQ-170s in Air Force service has been consistently estimated to be between 20 and 30 total aircraft.
"The AF-UAS squadron would add additional ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capability," the environmental impact analysis added. "The squadron would also support the continuing development of advanced concepts for integrating and employing UASs. Creech AFB is an ideal location for this new mission due to the availability of restricted airspace and the associated ranges."
It is worth pointing out that the first sighting of the RQ-170 had come in Afghanistan in 2007, after which the press had dubbed the drone "the Beast of Kandahar." In 2009, small numbers of these unmanned aircraft went first to Guam and then to South Korea. You can read more about the latter deployment in detail in this past War Zone piece, also based on documents obtained via the FOIA.
Combined with the proposed increase in the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron's overall size in order to "add additional ISR capability, the plans for the movement to Creech would seem to coincide with an increase in the operational use of the Wraiths overseas. Whatever the total size of the force as, by 2011, the drones were also flying over Iran, where one infamously crashed and was subsequently captured, and over Pakistan, where an RQ-170 kept watch over Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad before and during the raid that led to his death.
None of the documents provide any specifics about what kind of testing and concepts of operations development work the Air Force had planned for the Wraiths that stayed at Tonopah at that time. Still, this additional context about the movement of the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron and the establishment of OL-W is an interesting addition to what is already known about the history of the RQ-170 force.
OL-W was still active at Tonopah at least as of 2013, the same year that Detachment 1 of the 732nd Operations Group, a part of the 432nd Wing, was stood up at Creech. A unit patch for that detachment includes the phrase "Forging the Sword," which had previously indicated could refer to the development of new concepts of operation relating to the RQ-170, as well as other advanced unmanned aircraft. That same patch had a lightning bolt and three drops of blood, which could be references to electronic warfare and armed strike mission sets. The logo also had the silhouette of an RQ-170 and raven identical to the one found on the official 30th Reconnaissance Squadron insignia.
We also now know that the 44th Reconnaissance Squadron, also officially based at Creech, which stood up the same day the Air Force shuttered 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1, flies the RQ-170. It seems very possible, if not plausible, given the planned plus-up of the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, that the 44th is an evolution of the test and evaluation elements working on the RQ-170 that remained at Tonopah.
With this in mind, it's worth remembering that the first formal disclosure that the 44th was operating the RQ-170 came in an Air Force press release last year regarding the unit's participation in a so-called Large Force Test Event (LFTE) focused on exploring concepts of operations for stealthy aircraft, manned and unmanned, penetrating into denied areas. Suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses and electronic warfare tactics were also key components of the exercise.
When it comes to the basing of these unmanned aircraft domestically, there could still very well be Wraiths at Tonopah, given that the general nature of drones allows the personnel operating them to be physically separated from where the aircraft are launched and recovered. At the same time, we do know that there are RQ-170s at Creech and that these drones have also operated from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where they have good access to expansive ranges of the coast, for test and evaluation purposes. As of recently, the drones also are flying out of the Air Force's Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, home of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division, which developed the RQ-170.
Much about the RQ-170s, how the Air Force has employed them in the past, and how it is utilizing them today, especially as work on fielding more advanced stealthy drones continues, remains opaque. At the same time, the new information in these declassified documents has helped fill in more of the puzzle about the early service life of the Wraiths.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org