The drone that spied on bin Laden and on Iran's nukes was just the start. Meet its bigger, higher-flying, stealthier cousin, the Northrop Grumman RQ-180. It's probably been flying for a few years now, but you weren't supposed to know that; the existence of this secret project, based out of Area 51, was revealed Friday by Aviation Week.
The existence of the RQ-180 has been long rumored. Cryptic public statements by U.S. Air Force officials indicated a secret high-altitude reconnaissance drone, and Northrop officials frequently reference the broad strokes of the program. For that matter, it is likely not the only classified unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Other companies, including Lockheed and Boeing, also have a stable of smaller secretaircraft.
The RQ-180 is likely flying from the secret Air Force test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, widely known as Area 51. Its exact specifications, including such crucial details as the number of engines, is unknown, but Aviation Week suggests a wingspan of over 130 feet, based on hangar construction at Northrop's Palmdale, California facility. The number of aircraft built is also unknown; however, a flight test program, relatively quick entry into service and open budget documents suggest a small fleet are flying routinely.
One such aircraft is Lockheed's RQ-170, first shown to the world in grainy pictures from Kandahar air base, Afghanistan, but only officially acknowledged after one crashed almost-intact in Iran. The RQ-170 was (and maybe still is) tasked by the CIA to spy on Iran's contentious nuclear program. The drone was reportedly used to spy on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan before and during the raid that killed him. RQ-170 has also been reported in South Korea, possibly to look at North Korea's nuclear program. RQ-170 was impressive, but limited: it showed only some stealth characteristics, and was widely believed to be slightly outdated by the time it was discovered. The larger and stealthier RQ-180 would be able to fly higher, longer, allowing the CIA to watch the same targets for days at a time, and -- just maybe -- spy on more sophisticated countries.
The RQ-180 is based off the X-47B, a much smaller experimental aircraft that became the first drone to takeoff and land from an aircraft carrier. Where the smaller X-47B lacks range and stealth, RQ-180 evidently delivers. Though RQ-180 is far too large for an aircraft carrier, it may have the same air-to-air refueling capabilities as the X-47B, allowing it to stay in the air virtually indefinitely. It may also have attack capabilities: X-47B has bomb bays, which have thus far gone unused, and indeed Aviation Week suggests it is used for electronic attack and carries sophisticated sensors.
The aircraft's performance is said to be similar to Northrop's white-world entry, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which can fly for days and cover thousands of miles. Hopefully the RQ-180 performs better; Global Hawk has received mixed marks on its evaluations, and the aircraft it was meant to replace, the venerable Lockheed U-2, will continue to fly for decades to come.
White-world reconnaissance capabilities, such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and a plethora of modified Beechcraft King Airs, are incapable of stealth and can easily be tracked on radar. Though few doubt stealthier capabilities, the Air Force has been closemouthed on its stealthy intelligence aircraft.
The Nevada desert has a long history of supporting whole squadrons of classified aircraft, including the famed Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 stealth fighter and the RQ-170. Often upon becoming public the aircraft are transferred to other facilities, usually the slightly-less-classified Tonopah Test Range airport. The wheels of declassification turn slowly, so as with RQ-170, details of the RQ-180 will likely remain opaque for years to come.