Developed by Northrop Grumman is designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions
New hangars at Northrop's Palmdale, California, site and at the Air Force's Area 51 test center in Groom Lake, Nevada, have been built to hold an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130 feet.
It is set to take the place of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s RQ-170 Sentinel, the plane used in the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.
The Air Force’s new secret superspy plane is flying in the airspace above Area 51 and will likely be ready for missions by 2.015.
The RQ-180 appears to be a follow on to the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems project which was cancelled in late 2.005 when the United States Navy (USN) wanted a carrier-based aircraft (which led to the UCAS-D) while the United States Air Force (USAF) wanted a larger, long-range global strike platform.
In December 2.005, the program was split in two, with the USN starting the UCAS-D program which created the Northrop Grumman X-47B, and the USAF starting a "classified program."
The program was unmasked in Aviation Week & Space Technology in a 9 December 2.013 cover story following several months of research.
The RQ-180 was secretly funded through the USAF's classified budget.
Northrop Grumman was given the task to build the aircraft after a competition in which it defeated Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Northrop Grumman is believed to have been awarded a development contract for the RQ-180 in 2008, with deliveries of low-rate production aircraft beginning in 2.013.
Satellite imagery of Area 51 reportedly shows large hangers that could house the 130 ft (40 m) or larger wingspan of the aircraft.
The RQ-180 may also be related to the expansion of Northrop Grumman's production facility in Palmdale, California.
According to Aviation Week, the secret development of the RQ-180 explains public statements of USAF officials calling for penetrating Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities with no public acknowledgement of an effort to create one.
It may explain the service's lack of commitment for the RQ-4 Global Hawk and instead favoring of higher priority "classified platforms".
The USAF also does not want to buy and maintain large numbers of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper systems to have the ability to penetrate denied airspace and persistently provide ISR coverage.
The RQ-180 may also be responsible for the termination of the Next-Generation Bomber program in 2.009 from costs, and the emergence of the follow-on Long Range Strike Bomber program that would be cheaper and work with the UAV.
The USAF MQ-X program that was to find a platform to replace the Reaper may have been cancelled in 2.012 because of the RQ-180.
Lockheed Martin is developing its own solution to the problem of operating an ISR in defended airspace, known as the Lockheed SR-72, that relies on flying at hypersonic speeds.
Northrop Grumman's stealth design was seen as less susceptible to acquisition problems and risky technologies and could be put into service sooner, as soon as 2.015.
The RQ-180 addresses a need for conducting penetrating ISR missions into defended airspace, a mission that was left unattended with the retirement of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in 1.998.
It is equipped with an AESA radar and passive electronic surveillance measures, and may be capable of conducting electronic attack missions.
The RQ-180 shows a shift from UAVs that operate in permissive environments, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, to ones that can perform missions in contested airspace.
It is larger, stealthier, and has a longer range than the RQ-170 Sentinel which has previously been used for those types of missions.
The RQ-180 is believed to be about the size of the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb (14,630 kg); and have similar capabilities of endurance (24 hours) and range (1,200 nmi (1,400 mi; 2,200 km)).
This is much more than the RQ-170's endurance of 5-6 hours.
It has superior all-aspect, broadband radar cross-section reduction features compared to previous stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II.
The airframe has superior aerodynamics to give better range, endurance, and service ceiling.
The RQ-180 is believed to have a cranked-kite layout like the X-47B, but with a much longer wingspan, perhaps as much as 130 feet.
Northrop Grumman claims the wing is more scalable and adaptable than the B-2 Spirit's flying wing shape.
Aviation Week constructed concept images, including one on the cover of the magazine, of the stealthy unmanned aircraft that can penetrate an adversary’s state-of-the-art air defenses to conduct intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance missions.