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U.S. to base new unmanned spy plane in Korea

Dec 19,2009
The U.S. Defense Department is preparing to deploy its latest unmanned aerial vehicle named RQ-170 Sentinel in South Korea, sources have told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The U.S. Air Force confirmed the use of this stealth, jet-powered aircraft in Afghanistan only last week. The tailless, very high-altitude jet is also known as The Beast of Kandahar because the first photographs of the craft were taken in Afghanistan.

A military source said the U.S. Air Force stationed in South Korea has been test-operating RQ-170 Sentinel at a base in this country “for the past several months.”

“It’s expected to join the U.S. forces here next year,” the source said. “Once the Sentinel is deployed in the South, it would replace the U-2 [older spy plane] at the Osan Air Base [in Gyeonggi].”

Operated by a single pilot, the U-2 is considered outdated - it’s been in operation since the 1950s - and costs $1 million to carry out a single reconnaissance mission.

The RQ-170 Sentinel is expected to bolster the U.S. Air Force’s reconnaissance capabilities on North Korea. The Sentinel, a flying wing aircraft with sensor pods installed in the upper edge of each wing, can evade radar. In contingencies, it could fly into the North Korean skies and wouldn’t be detected by the North’s radars. It is equipped with high-resolution synthetic aperture radar and an infrared camera. It can fly at least 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) above ground for more than a day.

The Sentinel was developed by Lockheed Martin. In last week’s statement confirming the RQ-170 Sentinel’s presence, the U.S. Air Force said the aircraft is expected to “provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces.” The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at the U.S. Air Force operates these jets.

The RQ-170 Sentinel is the latest in a line of large surveillance craft in the U.S. Air Force. One of them, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, was initially expected to be deployed here to replace the U-2, but will instead be based at Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base.

Few other details of the jet are available, and the U.S. Air Force has released no further technical information about the Sentinel other than describing it as stealthy.

A U.S. aviation expert Bill Sweetman, who has posted some photographs prior to the Air Force’s confirmation, estimates its wingspan range to be between 20 meters (65.6 feet) and 27 meters.


By Kim Min-seok [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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