Are U.S. Stealth Drones Flying Around Iran?

David Axe

U.S. forces on deployment to the Middle East include F-15E fighter-bombers, F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, among others.

But as tensions escalate between the United States and its allies including Saudi Arabia on one hand, and Iran and Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels on the other hand, it’s worth considering what other American aircraft might be in the region.

The Pentagon maintains an extensive surveillance system in the Persian Gulf region that includes satellites, drones and ground- and sea-based sensors.

Iran’s shoot-down of a U.S. Navy Global Hawk drone in June 2019 put a dent in this system. But it’s possible that other, stealthier drones complement the high-flying but non-stealthy Global Hawks.

In 2010, the U.S. Air Force surveyed an airbase in the United Arab Emirates for the deployment of RQ-170 Sentinel stealth spy drones.

According to heavily-redacted official documents that journalist Joe Trevithick obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, on Sept. 14, 2010, the Air Force’s Air Combat Command circulated an internal memo discussing the “pre-deployment site survey” for placing some of the satellite-controlled RQ-170s at Al Dhafra airbase in the Emirates.

In 2019 Al Dhafra hosts American F-22s, F-35s, F-15Es and other warplanes. The MQ-4C drone that Iran shot down in June 2019 also flew from Al Dhafra.

The small force of flying-wing RQ-170s was busy even before the possible UAE deployment. The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron — a combined Air Force and CIA unit normally based in remote Tonopah, Nevada -- apparently operates all of the roughly 30 RQ-170s that Lockheed Martin built for the Air Force in the early 2000s.

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