The US Air Force currently has its most advanced spy plane, the P-8A Poseidon, hovering around Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Condemned by China, these surveillance flights are part of the increasing tension between the two countries over the Chinese government’s land reclamation projects.
On Thursday, the pentagon confirmed it also sent a B-52 bomber through the region.
But according to documents obtained by War Is Boring through a Freedom of Information Act request, these flights are just the tip of the iceberg. The US Air Force has been launching top secret aircraft over large swathes of the Pacific since at least 2013, primarily to collect intelligence on China and North Korea.
"Other USAF aircraft flying national collection missions included the RC-135U Combat Sent, the RC-135S Cobra Ball and the aforementioned [redacted]," the document reads.
While the Combat Sent and Cobra Ball are both large surveillance planes, roughly the size of passenger jets, the redacted aircraft remains classified. Still, military experts have some idea what the aircraft may be.
One possibility is the RQ-170 Sentinel, also known as the Wraith. Developed by Lockheed Martin, this drone is nearly invisible to radar and reportedly developed to allow the US to spy within the borders of rival countries.
This is the same model that authorities in Tehran claim crash-landed in Iranian territory back in 2011.
One of the most classified aircraft in the Pentagon’s arsenal, the Sentinel, and many had questioned if the 2011 incident would lead to their discontinuation. The possibility of RQ-170’s patrolling the Pacific suggests that may not be the case.
But the plane could also be something entirely new. A number of America’s most infamous spy planes were put into use long before their existence was known to the public. The U-2, the A-12 Oxcart, and the SR-71 Blackbird were all once top secret.
In 2013, the reporters for Aviation Week also unveiled the existence of a classified project to develop a new Sentinel, the RQ-180.
Whatever secret planes the Pentagon may be developing, it’s already spending exorbitant sums on unclassified projects. The F-35 program has cost nearly $400 billion and, despite its high-tech accoutrements, still struggles to compete against its own predecessors.
Last month, the Pentagon also awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for the development of a next-generation Long Range Strike-Bomber. That contract is worth an estimated $51 billion.