My first piece on the ancestry of the RQ-170 Sentinel, America’s secret unmanned stealthy sensor truck of choice, got a lot of traffic and was the topic of one of my recent colorful interviews on John Batchelor’s national radio program (
Yet after writing the piece something about the genesis of the now infamous bat-winged tactical reconnaissance platform sat odd with me.
I had heard of its unique mission requirement somewhere along the abstract timeline of aerospace technology I have built-in my head over the years, long before even the whole TIER3- concept officially existed.
In fact this machine even predated Operation Desert Storm and the rumblings about the possible existence of a TR-3A “Black Manta” like stealthy manned tactical loitering reconnaissance aircraft that surfaced during the late 1980s and hit a crescendo after the first Gulf War.
Most notable of all of these programs was Lockheed’s notorious bleeding edge “Skunkworks” design house’s “Have Blue” demonstrator, aka the “Hopeless Diamond.” The successful Have Blue program would eventually morph into the world’s first true “Stealth” production aircraft, the infamous F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter (the Nighthawk was really an attack aircraft but marketing is a powerful thing even in the Pentagon’s black budget world).
Yet another smaller, less glamorous, but arguably as influential top-secret technology demonstration was also underway around this same period in time, known ambiguously as “Tacit Blue.” The Tacit Blue aircraft, known affectionately as “The Whale” amongst those who were involved with the program over at legendary aerospace manufacturer Northrop, had an entirely separate set of objectives than Lockheed’s proposed stealth attack aircraft, although radar invisibility was one they both had in common.
Whereas Lockheed, leveraging its innovative “ECHO1” radar predictability software, found the “faceted,” diamond like structural approach suitable for a stealth tactical attack aircraft, where speed and agility were on the requirement list, a few years later Northrop would take an almost entirely opposite route to achieve groundbreaking “low observable” results.
In the late 1970’s the Do D’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was working hard at breaking open stealth technology’s virtual “Pandora’s box,” and diligently figuring out new ways to leverage the still very young and emerging capability.
Never before could America , and the creative minds over at the Pentagon were deciding exactly where this new revolutionary method of designing aircraft could make the most impact.