Better images of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 have emerged,with technical assessment

by Bill Sweetman at 1/25/2011

It’s back – more and better images of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 have emerged on the Secret Projects forum. You need to register to see the rest, but if you’re interested in this sort of stuff you should do so anyway.

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It’s possible from these images to get a clearer idea of what RQ-170 is and is not. It appears to be much the same size as an MQ-9A Reaper, and will have a similar payload but shorter endurance (because of jet propulsion, mainly).

Unless almost everything we have heard about stealth is wrong, this is a moderately stealthy aircraft. Compare it to the not-very-different-size RQ-3A DarkStar:  the edges are much blunter and there are not-very-stealthy bumps above and below the wing, with steeper angles and sharper curves than the RQ-3A designers tolerated.

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The side views indicate the shape of the belly fairing, which looks like it houses an electro-optical/infrared sensor at the front end and (most likely) an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar behind it. Although it’s an AESA, it probably gimbals to scan right or left.

The overwing fairings remain a mystery, but the best bet for now is that they are datalinks. Why two of them? One possibility: they contain antennas that can be rotated, when not in use, to reduce their reflectivity, given that the best bandwidth-selective radome can only do so much. So if your UAV is being illuminated by radar, you turn to place that radar on one side of the aircraft and use the antenna on the opposite, “shadow” side of the aircraft to communicate.

Satellite communications would be the obvious way to communicate, but you could use much less power if you used an airborne relay. So what exactly have the various Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) platforms been doing these last few years?

Both the satellite links and the belly fairing could be modular payloads, making it possible to configure the aircraft for strike missions or to carry a high-power microwave source – such as the one mentioned in this Lockheed Martin news release as “requiring an aerial delivery platform”. It could also be an effective “stand-in” jamming platform to support other aircraft.

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