Mark Collins – RQ-180: Stealthy New USAF/CIA Black Drone

Aviation Leak does it again–at Foreign PolicyFP’s Situation Report: A secret spy plane, unmasked

Out of the sky: Aviation Week unmasks a secret spy plane program that’ll fly at Area 51. AvWeek’s Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman: “A large, classified unmanned aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman is now flying-and it demonstrates a major advance in combining stealth and aerodynamic efficiency. Defense and intelligence officials say the secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, is scheduled to enter production for the U.S. Air Force and could be operational by 2015. Funded through the Air Force’s classified budget, the program to build this new UAS, dubbed the RQ-180, was awarded to Northrop Grumman after a competition that included Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The aircraft will conduct the penetrating ISR mission that has been left unaddressed, and under wide debate, since retirement of the Lockheed SR-71 in 1998. 

Neither the Air Force nor Northrop Grumman would speak about the classified airplane… The RQ-180 carries radio-frequency sensors such as active, electronically scanned array radar and passive electronic surveillance measures, according to one defense official. It could also be capable of electronic attack missions. This aircraft’s design is key for the shift of Air Force ISR assets away from “permissive” environments-such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where Northrop Grumman’s non-stealthy Global Hawk and General Atomics’ Reaper operate-and toward operations in ‘contested’ or ‘denied’ airspace. The new UAS underpins the Air Force’s determination to retire a version of the RQ-4B Global Hawk after 2014, despite congressional resistance…Beyond the financial disclosures, publicly available overhead imagery shows new shelters and hangars sized for an aircraft with a 130-ft.-plus wing span at Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif., plant and at Area 51, the Air Force’s secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nev.” Read the rest of this tale, 

Also from the story:

If the previous patterns for secret ISR aircraft operations are followed, the new UAV will be jointly controlled by the Air Force and the CIA, with the program managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office and flight operations sustained by the Air Force…

The AvWeek cover:


Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a 
Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


3 thoughts on “Mark Collins – RQ-180: Stealthy New USAF/CIA Black Drone”

  1. More:

    “Where Does RQ-180 Fit In Stealthy UAS History?

    To fully understand this new UAS, one must view it in the context of the larger “family of systems” the Air Force envisions to include long-range strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. A 2010 presentation by the Air Force’s director of operational requirements at the time, Maj. Gen. David Scott, made that connection.

    Emergence of the RQ-180 allowed the Air Force to reduce requirements for what was once called the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB), a program terminated in 2009 because of its high cost. The follow-on Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) [more: ]
    is a less-expensive option that will rely on interoperability with the RQ-180 and other systems in the family…

    Not since the Mach 3 SR-71 program ended in 1998 has the Pentagon been able to overfly targets in hostile airspace to collect intelligence. The proliferation of longer-range and integrated air-defense systems, coupled with its high operating cost, banished the Blackbird to museums. And in 1999, the Pentagon terminated the RQ-3 DarkStar UAS, a potential successor under development by Lockheed Martin and Boeing as a stealthy adjunct to Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, after it encountered flight-stability problems. These developments left unanswered a Pentagon Joint Requirements Oversight Council mission-need statement for an aircraft capable of operating in defended airspace for long periods.

    Though satellites are capable of peering behind borders, they lack the persistence and flexibility of aircraft. Satellites are limited by slant ranges, a problem that aircraft can mitigate by altering their flight paths. Also, adversaries can predict when a spacecraft will fly overhead and adjust their operations accordingly.

    High-speed platforms continue to be evaluated, such as Lockheed Martin’s hypersonic SR-72 concept (AW&ST Nov. 4, p. 18),
    but planners leery of acquisition foul-ups and higher-risk technology opted for stealth in order to field a system as soon as 2015.

    The expectation that the RQ-180 will be fielded soon has helped to cement support for the Air Force’s abrupt change of heart on the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance UAS—once the centerpiece for the service’s ISR development plans…”

    Mark Collins

  2. Plus satellite photos (not of plane itself):

    “Unmasking the RQ-180”

    And how they came up with the image of the plane:

    Mark Collins

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