One day in late November, an unmanned aerial vehicle lifted off from Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan, heading 75 miles toward the border with Iran. The drone’s mission: to spy on Tehran’s nuclear program, as well as any insurgent activities the Iranians might be supporting in Afghanistan. With an estimated price tag of $6 million, the drone was the product of more than 15 years of research and development, starting with a shadowy project called DarkStar overseen by Lockheed Martin. The first test flight for DarkStar took place in 1996, but after a crash and other mishaps, Lockheed announced that the program had been canceled. According to military experts, that was just a convenient excuse for “going dark,” meaning that DarkStar’s further development would take place under a veil of secrecy.
The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.