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December 7, 2009—The Air Force on Monday declined to provide any answers on its new RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle beyond its initial bare-bones press release (see USAF Reveals New Stealth Drone), but Pentagon officials told Daily Report that USAF had officially acknowledged its existence to make it easier to integrate the vehicle into operations in Southwest Asia.

Since the UAV will soon be operating openly from forward airfields, more photos are bound to emerge. (This same explanation was offered when the F-117 was brought out of the "black.")

The service already was getting a lot of questions not only from the press but also other nations about the aircraft.

Word of the new drone first appeared in an April 2009 blog of the British magazine Unmanned Vehicles, but USAF refrained from comment until a French blog Secret Defense of Liberation newspaper published an actual—though grainy—photo on Dec. 1. (Earlier, but more blurred, photos appeared in the French Air and Cosmos magazine after the Unmanned Vehicles story.)

However, the aircraft has aviation analysts scratching their heads, asking why would USAF be deploying a developmental, stealthy UAV into combat operations against a foe that has no radars or other means of detecting reconnaissance drones?

Per the service’s brief statement, USAF fielded the RQ-170 to help satisfy the need for increased intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance support to field commanders and to further Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz’s vision for "an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft."

So, the developmental Sentinel’s deployment may simply have been a gesture to show that the Air Force was indeed "all in" in response to an early complaint by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the Air Force wasn’t making a full commitment of its ISR assets to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another possibility is that the aircraft performs some kind of electronic warfare mission.

The emblem of the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates the Sentinel, is a black crow standing astride a globe showing principally the areas of Southwest Asia and East Africa. Crows and Blackbirds are typical symbols of electronic warfare or secret mission operators.

USAF approved this new emblem in July 2007 for the 30th RS, which had been redesignated in 2005 from the former 30th Tactical Recon Squadron, according to an Air Force fact sheet on the unit's history.

(Sentinel photo from Liberation's Secret Defense blog, here translated into English; Liberation's Secret Defense blog in French)