Stealth Is Put To The Test In Huge Exercise Teaming RQ-170s, F-35s, B-2s With Other Jets

This exercise is also the first confirmation that the Air Force’s top-secret 44th Reconnaissance Squadron flies the reclusive RQ-170 Sentinel.

byJoseph Trevithick and Jamie Hunter|
B-2 photo


The U.S. Air Force has revealed a major recent exercise involving a wide variety of different stealthy aircraft, including F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, F-22 Raptors, and a B-2A Spirit stealth bomber. Most notably, at least one RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone from the service's top-secret 44th Reconnaissance Squadron, which The War Zone was first to report on in detail, also took part in the event. The exercise focused on stealthy penetration into denied areas, suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses, and electronic attack tactics.

The 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, part of the 53rd Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, led the so-called Large Force Test Event (LFTE), which cost approximately $1.4 million to put on. The exercise ran from Aug. 4 to Aug. 6, 2020 and was part of efforts to develop solutions to a number of "Tactics Improvement Proposals," or TIPs that the Air Force has identified as priority concerns. In addition to the stealthy platforms, Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle combat jets and U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft participated in the LFTE. 

The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, provided the F-35As, F-22s, and F-15Es, while the B-2A came from the Group's 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron. The Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9) supplied the EA-18Gs. The Air Force's 605th Test and Evaluation Squadron and the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) were also involved.

In addition, the 44th Reconnaissance Squadron sent at least one RQ-170, which is especially notable given that this appears to be the first official confirmation that this unit flies these flying-wing unmanned aircraft. The War Zone previously published a deep investigation into this unit, about which little is still known, which you can find here

An RQ-170 Sentinel at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam., USAF via FOIA

This mix of aircraft offered a "unique combination of joint platforms maximized the development and evaluation of combat-relevant capabilities," according to the Air Force's official press release. "As a result of the LFTE, the Air Force was able to explore [a] unique integration of tactics, techniques, and procedures that have never been tested together in select capabilities."

According to the Air Force, the exercise was centered around exploring tactics, techniques, and procedures to address four main areas of interest, which are as follows:

  • The use of fifth-generation stealth aircraft to conduct suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) in support of B-2A operations.
  • Advanced low observable ingress tactics.
  • Air Force non-stealthy fourth-generation aircraft working together with fifth-generation platforms for SEAD missions, including with other services and potentially with coalition partners.
  • Effectiveness of electronic attack tactics, techniques, and procedures between fourth and fifth-generation aircraft.

"This exercise is primarily focused on demonstrating LO [low observable; stealthy] platform effectiveness against advanced threats," Air Force Major Theodore Ellis, Chief of 53rd Wing Weapons, said in a statement. "We do this by utilizing emerging technology and tactics to minimize weaknesses and capitalize on joint capabilities."

“Through events like these, we continue to improve our joint 4th and 5th generation tactics, which enhances our abilities in an advanced threat environment,” Major Ellis continued. 

The video below shows Air Force F-35As flying with Navy EA-18G Growlers during a past exercise. These were two of the types of aircraft involved in this recent LFTE at Nellis Air Force Base.

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It will only be increasingly important for the Air Force, as well as Navy and Marines, to train and train together on how to defeat or otherwise mitigate the threats from ever-improving adversary air defense systems and the sensor networks that support them. There are real risks even to high-end stealth platforms that require a layered approach, including kinetic and non-kinetic attacks, as well as other tactics to safely infiltrate an enemy's air defense bubble.

Simulations and limited experiments can help evaluate certain components of this overall ecosystem, but large-scale exercises are still invaluable to get a true sense of how all the pieces do or do not fit together and what adjustments and new developments might be necessary. "The investment and trust in our team allowed the 53 Wing to evaluate the interoperability of leading-edge capabilities and develop TTPs that will ultimately strengthen our nation’s air dominance," Air Force Colonel Bill Creeden, the head of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, said in a statement.

It's also worth noting that we don't know exactly what role the RQ-170 was playing in this particular exercise. While there have been experiments in the past involving the drones conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in direct support of other stealthy aircraft, there is the possibility that the unmanned aircraft, in this case, may have been flying a different role. 

A patch associated with the 732nd Operations Group, Detachment 1, the immediate predecessor to the 44th Reconnaissance Squadron, features a lightning bolt, which is typically representative of electronic warfare, as well as three drops of blood, which could be a reference to a kinetic attack mission. It also featured the phrase "forging the sword," which might reflect a mission to help develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures, some of which may be related to the employment of stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles. This would largely fit with the publicly stated objectives of this particular exercise.

We will hopefully begin to learn more about the 44th Reconnaissance Squadron and its activities, as well as the other extremely important work that the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group is conducting into bleeding-edge aerial combat tactics, techniques, and procedures that center of making the most of America's leading-edge stealth and electronic warfare capabilities, and more.

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