Ultra-secret, Area-51 spy plane finally revealed to the public
Designed to operate in combat environments, the RQ-180 represents a leap forward in drone technology.
Aviation Week has revealed the existence of a super-secret drone aircraft operating out of Area 51. The craft is said to be an ultra-secret high-altitude, stealth spy drone known as the RQ-180.
You may remember the RQ-170 because one crashed in Iran last year and was also reportedly used to spy on Osama bin Laden before the raid that killed him.
Aviation Week says the Air Force as well as Northrop Grumman have denied interviews but others with inside knowledge say the craft represents a revolutionary leap in drone technology.
Until now, drones have been designed for use in "permissive" airspace. Airspace such as over Iraq and Afghanistan where the risk of interception by hostile forces is virtually nil. Now, the new generation of drone aircraft, likely spearheaded by the RQ-180, is designed to operate in "contested" or "denied" airspace, using Air Force terminology. This means the craft can probably operate undetected over technologically advanced, hostile nations.
The RQ-180 is intended for active use in combat airspace. It is also rumored to be capable of carrying weapons payload inside bomb bays.
An artistic rendition of the RQ-180 from Aviation Week.
The program has been suspected since 2008 when Aviation Week examined Northrop Grumman's financial reports. According to the magazine, "Northrop Grumman's financial reports point to a possible award of a secret UAS contract in 2008, when the company disclosed a $2 billion increase in the backlog in its Integrated Systems division. This is the operating unit responsible for building the B-2 bomber, Global Hawk and Fire Scout UAS and X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator. This year, Northrop Grumman financial reports acknowledged that an unnamed aircraft program entered low-rate initial production, the Pentagon term for low-volume deliveries that begin as testing nears completion and before the program is approved for full production."
Other evidence includes an expansion of the company's hangars in Palmdale to possibly accommodate an aircraft with a 130 ft. or greater wingspan. The company also upgraded its production facilities in 2010.
Several high-ranking officials both in Congress and the Air Force have alluded to "higher priorities" than expansion of current, known drone programs such as Global Hawk, leading experts to wonder if the new programs were secret black projects. The RQ-180 could be the affirmative answer to that speculation-the money has been going there.
So why is the silence being broken?
Aviation week speculates that the existence of the program is being leaked because it will soon reach operational status. Once a black program becomes operational, it becomes difficult to maintain its secrecy. Area 51 could become the home base for the fleet of secret drones, but using that facility could impact other projects at the base. The reason is that when one project is operating outside, workers on other projects are confined inside. An active drone program could impact the time engineers and scientists have to work on other projects.
This means the Air Force will probably prefer to move the program to a more public facility where it is likely to be leaked anyway.
Also, commanders need to know what these programs are and what they capabilities may be. As more commanders are briefed on the program, secrecy becomes increasingly difficult, even burdensome.
The RQ-180 is rumored to be higher-flying, father ranged, and stealthier than any aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. It may be capable of in-flight refueling and can probably operate for days as opposed to hours. Several radical design changes have been made, although they may not be apparent to the untrained eye. The craft is rumored to have the classic "boomerang" shape featured in many stealth aircraft such as the B-2 bomber.
Although the program is now being acknowledged, and we will probably start seeing the first images of the craft within the next year or two, we can also rest assured that the government scientists are already at the drawing board, contemplating what's next.
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