As time passes, we learn more in hindsight about the massive team effort which led to the demise of who used to be our nation’s number one enemy, Usama bin Laden. Thanks to timely and well-placed shots fired by a Navy SEAL, that particular problem no longer draws breath. Leading up to Neptune Spear, however, there was a massive intelligence-gathering effort, a lot of which was accomplished by a secretive drone, the Lockheed-Martin RQ-170 Sentinel.
Since 2004, the United States has followed insurgents into Pakistan, and has spied on and sometimes killed them there. The CIA flies Predator and Reaper unpiloted aerial vehicles over the tribal districts, often with the approval of Pakistani leaders, who have enemies of their own among the militants inhabiting the country’s northwest. Some missions though are conducted without approval from Pakistan’s authorities. For those missions, the CIA needed a different aircraft.
In late 2007, reporters and observers at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airfield discovered that a new spy had joined the team. Grainy photographs emerged of what appeared to be an unmanned flying wing. Aviation reporter Bill Sweetman (who writes a column for this magazine) nicknamed the aircraft “the Beast of Kandahar,” and the name has stuck, though the airplane doesn’t have the ferocity or power of a beast. It is an unarmed, stealthy observer designed to glide silently over its targets and transmit photos, video, and other intelligence to a worldwide network of users. The Air Force acknowledged it in 2009 and revealed its official name: the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel.
The RQ-170 is operated by the U.S. Air Force 432nd Wing, which also operates Predators and Reapers. The 432nd, stationed at Creech Air Force Base, northwest of Las Vegas, declined to speak about the Sentinel, and a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin would state only that it is a “low-observable Unmanned Aerial System” and that its “primary mission is Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.”
The joint CIA–special operations forces mission that would best show off the RQ-170’s surveillance capabilities was conducted years later, in support of the SEAL team who, on the night of May 1, 2011, flew into Pakistan on two modified Black Hawk helicopters, entered a compound in Abbottabad, and killed Usama bin Laden.