RQ-170 Sentinel Stealth Drones May Have Flown Sorties Off Crimea

American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drones may have conducted at least nine sorties since September 2022 to gather intelligence on Russian forces occupying Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and other areas in the Black Sea region, according to a leaked U.S. military document. If true, this would be a rare insight into the continued operational use of these drones, also nicknamed Wraiths, which remain shrouded in secrecy nearly 15 years after the U.S. military officially acknowledged their existence.

French-language website Zone Militaire was among the first to report on the document in question, which is among those leaked online by Airman 1st Class Jack Douglas Teixeira of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Overall, it provides details about U.S. and NATO aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activity in the Black Sea region between September 2022 and February 2023. In addition to data on RQ-170 flights in that timeframe, data is also provided on U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-9 Reaper drone sorties, as well as activities involving British RC-135W Rivet Joints, French Mirage 2000s, and NATO Global Hawks. France’s use of Mirage 2000 fighter jets in the region in the ISR role, which they are capable of performing by carrying external reconnaissance pods, does not appear to have been revealed before now, either.

Though it does not explicitly mention Russian forces in Ukraine or Russia proper as the targets of these flights, an accompanying map shows established flight paths off the occupied Crimean Peninsula. There is no indication one way or the other about any actual overflights by any of the aircraft mentioned in the document of Ukraine or Russia. However, even before the Russian military launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there had been a noticeable uptick in U.S. and European aerial ISR activity around Russia’s periphery, as can be seen in the Tweet below. The U.S. government has made no secret of its extensive intelligence-sharing with its Ukrainian counterparts, either.

It is worth noting that The War Zone has been unable to definitively and independently verify the authenticity of the document mentioning the RQ-170 flights. At least some of the materials Teixeira leaked look to have been doctored, as well. If the ISR document is legitimate, it is still unknown whether RQ-170 flights are still ongoing in the region or where they are being conducted from.

“As a matter of policy and operational security, we will not comment on operational details of ISR assets,” a spokesperson for U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), the service’s top command in the region, said in response to queries about the document. “However, routine ISR flights support a range of U.S. national, Allied and Partner objectives.”

The War Zone has also reached out to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The document in question is labeled as having been produced by the main ISR office, also known as J-32, within the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

All this being said, there are certainly good reasons why the U.S. military would employ RQ-170s in this context, even to carry out ISR sorties from a stand-off range in international airspace over the Black Sea. The Air Force is understood to have between 20 and 30 of these drones in total. The service has only ever confirmed that two units, the 30th and 44th Reconnaissance Squadrons, operate them. Their main base of operations has long been at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but other locations have hosted them, at least in the past.

An RQ-170 Sentinel in a test configuration seen flying out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2017. Matthew C. Hartman

A stealthy aircraft like the RQ-170 would offer a tool to gather intelligence with a lower chance of detection. Non-stealthy ISR aircraft are easier for an opponent to spot and track, and they can try to take additional immediate steps to conceal or alter their activities based on that knowledge.

As such, RQ-170s could potentially collect more nuanced intelligence about enemy force dispositions, operating procedures, and other activities. The Sentinels are understood to be capable of hosting a number of sensors, including an active electronically-scanned array radar with synthetic aperture imaging and ground-moving target indicator capabilities, electro-optical sensor ball, and electronic intelligence suites.

The Sentinels are of course not completely invisible to radar – no stealth aircraft is – but their capabilities in this regard could also allow them to fly closer to the targets they’re tasked with surveilling. This, in turn, could further improve the quality of the intelligence gathered and being able to persist there without being detected provides the aforementioned different level of intelligence.

The RQ-170’s stealth features would also help protect the drones from any potential enemy response. Well before it launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia had already significantly bolstered its air defense capabilities, including with additional long-range S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems that include robust radars, in Crimea.

A broader change in the risk calculus in the region may have also prompted the deployment of RQ-170s. The time frame in the leaked document aligns with an incident involving Russian Su-27 Flanker higher jets and a British RC-135W in September 2022. Other documents from the Teixeira leaks, together with additional secondary reporting, say that one of the Russian pilots actively tried to shoot down the Rivet Joint due to a miscommunication, but thankfully was unsuccessful. A malfunctioning missile reportedly saved the day, as you can find out more about here.

The loss of a non-stealth Air Force MQ-9 after it was hit by a Russian Su-27 in March underscores the still very serious state affairs in the region. Two Russian Flankers intercepted the Reaper and made numerous close passes, including some in which they dumped fuel on the drone, before the collision. You can read more about that incident, which the U.S. military described as “reckless, environmentally unsound, and unprofessional,” here.

Interestingly, the map in the document has labeled “typical” flight paths for both U.S. Air Force and NATO Global Hawks, British Rivet Joints, and French Mirages, but not for either the RQ-170 or the MQ-9. There is a line that is simply labeled “SECDEF Directed Standoff,” which may indicate stand-off ISR sorties conducted at the express direction of the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

A need for Secretary of Defense-level authorization would certainly make sense with regard to RQ-170 flights over the Black Sea given the possible risks of losing sensitive assets in the region where they might then be recovered by the Russians. Authorities in Russia have claimed to have retrieved sensitive equipment from the Reaper that came down in the region in March, though the U.S. military has repeatedly insisted that the threats to operational security from this loss are limited.

The War Zone has previously reported on risk assessment processes related to the deployment of Sentinels, specifically, based on information from declassified records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. One of those drones was infamously already captured after coming down in Iran in 2011. Russia and China were all but certain to have been able to intimately examine the near-totally intact RQ-170.

The RQ-170 that crashed in Iran in 2011 now on display in that country. Iranian state media

That SECDEF approval might also be required for at least some MQ-9 sorties is more curious. However, it is known that Reapers are employed on more sensitive missions, sometimes under the auspices of the U.S. military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This could potentially also reflect improving stand-off capabilities for these drones, which the Air Force has been exploring in order to help ensure their continued relevance in support of operations in higher-threat environments.

Regardless, the possible use of the RQ-170 on ISR missions over the Black Sea is still the far more interesting revelation from the leaked document. The list of locations where Sentinels are known to have been used in the past is short: over Iran, in support of the raid that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, around the Korean Peninsula, and in areas of the Western Pacific while flying from Guam.

If the information in the leaked document is accurate, then flights in the Black Sea can now be added to the RQ-170’s still shadowy operational history.

Contact the authors: joe@thedrive.com, howard@thewarzone.com

Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.