Stealthiest yet : RQ-180 Revealed


New Member
AvWeek reports it's the size of GlobalHawk and is the stealthiest bird in the sky, besting the B-2, F-22 and F-35. This makes it suitable to,carry out the penetrating ISR mission. It's built by Northrop-Grumman and presumably bolsters the Company's chances should it compete
for the LRS-B bid.
Secret New UAS Shows Stealth, Efficiency Advances

EXCLUSIVE: Secret New UAS Shows Stealth, Efficiency Advances

December 06, 2013

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. When queried about the project, Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy said, “The Air Force does not discuss this program.”

More,at the link.


New Member
Forget Amazon delivery drones; the US Air Force’s latest unmanned stealth craft has reportedly already taken to the skies, potentially capable of mounting clandestine electronic warfare in enemy territory. The drone, believed to be the RQ-180 and made as part of a potentially $2bn project by Northrop Grumman, is already running test flights ahead of full operations by 2015, it’s reported, and be focused on missions in airspace where the US Air Force’s existing, less stealthy unmanned craft cannot go.


Currently, Aviation Week reports, the Air Force primarily uses Global Hawk and Reaper drones, in less contentious airspace such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the military has supposedly been shopping for a less obvious craft which could slip unnoticed through the skies above countries where an American presence is less welcome.

Neither the Air Force nor Northrop Grumman would comment on the RQ-180 project, though the contract is believed to have been inked as far back as 2008. Financial reports from the manufacturer suggest small-scale production of a new aircraft program began earlier in 2013.

Technical details are scant, though the RQ-180 is believed to be considerably larger than Northrop Grumman’s other recent unmanned project, the X-47B drone that was mistaken for a UFO last year. That has an extended wingspan of around 62 feet, whereas aerial photography of shelters said to be for the new stealth drone suggest a potential wingspan of more than double that.


Despite the increase in size, it’s not known whether the RQ-180 will undertake strike missions. Instead, it may be more focused on stealth and electronic attacks, piloting a new radar-reducing cross-section design that can not only minimize the chance of discovery but allow the drone to fly higher, longer, and further afield. The image above is a concept, since the actual appearance of the craft has not been revealed.

As for payload, according to an unnamed defense official, the RQ-180 carries active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar which is known for allowing precise tracking but still being difficult to detect over background noise, along with passive electronic surveillance measures.

While the Air Force may not be commenting on specifics, it has not shied from admitting in the recent past that it is aiming for greater clandestine abilities. “We are over-invested in permissive ISR and we have to transform the force to fight and win in contested environments” Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) Lt. Gen. Robert Otto said back in September. “We will seek a more balanced fleet of both manned and unmanned platforms that are able to penetrate denied airspace and provide unprecedented levels of persistence.”


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Do not copy and paste entire articles, and if you do want to enter articles then please can you pick out a couple of details which you're interested in and talk about it. Basically, discuss the article's content.

Plus by not citing the source of the article you're contradicting rule 21 of the rules of this forum, so please don't do it again.

There is no need to reply to this post, just bear it in mind in the future.


New Member
Could this be the first step towards reducing reliance on ISR systems with high RCS values i.e. E-3, JSTARS etc..? I must admit, an LO AWACS sounds very interesting.


Grumpy Old Man
Staff member
Verified Defense Pro
ISR is not about single solution platforms, they're complimentary systems - and each subset of the ISR solution has a point in time utility, be it redundancy, or capability overlap etc.....

a good example of this is airborne ASW ASuW,

BAMS UAS can carry limited ISR gear - so will be tasked to do vanilla work - but its the manned assets (P8's) that will do the heavy lifting - and carry literally 5-6 times more systems on board and are therefore in absolute terms, the more useful platform when it comes to crunch time

there's a need to understand the differences between, roles, taskings, mission reqs etc as each has different demands and those demands can mean using different assets for a point in time - but they may not be the only available asset that can do the job....


Just a bloke
Staff member
Verified Defense Pro
Or Bill Sweetman aka "Low Observable" just pulling his pud over his beloved "black" programs...

Meanwhile telling all and sundry "stealth" doesn't work on F-35...


New Member
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Tasking the RQ-180 for the EW role to complement LRS-B would be key to help keep the new bomber affordable i.e. @ $500M a pop. Offloading comprehensive EW kit results in a lower LRS-B cost which should translate into billions saved for a planned fleet of 100 aircraft. For the most challenging missions, a RQ-180 could escort LRS-B helping clear a path through defenses. The RQ-180 can also do the penetrating ISR mission cheaper and without the risk of using a manned platform.


The RQ-180 has been in development for some time and capabilities-wise it seems to surpass the RQ-170.

I have a hunch this is why the US response to the capture of the RQ-170 by Iran felt quite low-key to me.
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The Bunker Group
A while back there was news of airborne bistatic radar developments.

Do you think that the RQ-180 (or something like it) could be used as VLO receivers for this to provide AWACS coverage in denied airspace?


Grumpy Old Man
Staff member
Verified Defense Pro
A while back there was news of airborne bistatic radar developments.

Do you think that the RQ-180 (or something like it) could be used as VLO receivers for this to provide AWACS coverage in denied airspace?
VLO aircraft are already a flying array - and conceptually its always been a consideration that future VLO UAS would be able to form part of a larger sensor array....


A recent interview with Gen Mike Hostage seems to imply that U-2s are going to be phased out and more Global Hawks will be purchased, but that would not be an ideal arrangement. I'm speculating: could the RQ-180 then be seen as the successor of the U-2?

Q. ISR is another area that has been politically difficult in the past. Is that impacting your plans?

A. Well, we are being driven by politics to take on a weapon system that is very expensive, the Global Hawk. It appears that I will be told I have to continue to purchase Global Hawks, and given the budget picture that we have, I cannot afford both the U-2 and the Global Hawk. I will likely have to give up the U-2. What that means is that we are going to have to spend buckets of money to get the Global Hawk up to some semblance of capability that the U-2 currently has. It is going to cost a lot of money, and it is going to take time, and as I lose the U-2 fleet, I now have a high-altitude ISR fleet that is not very useful in a contested environment. It will change how I am able to employ that airplane in a high-end fight or a contested domain.
Link here: Air Combat Command's challenge: Buy new or modernize older aircraft | Air Force Times |
An October 2019 article by Guy Norris on the Aviation Week website sheds new light on the history of development and testing of the reconnaissance drone informally called "RQ-180":
In 2007, following a yearlong Air Force HALE contest, Northrop signaled it had been successful when the corporation’s leaders reported they expected to win a major restricted program. By June of that year, observers of the Air Force’s top-secret Area 51 test complex at Nellis AFB, Nevada, noted that construction was underway for a new large hangar at the “Southend” zone of the Groom Lake facility. The size and dimensions of the building suggested it was being made ready for an aircraft with a relatively large span wing.

As the new Groom Lake hangar neared completion in early 2008, Northrop Grumman’s financial reports revealed the company had been awarded a large classified aircraft development contract valued at $2 billion for an operational ISR UAV with an unprecedented combination of extreme low-observable (LO) features and aerodynamic efficiency. The development effort was undertaken by Northrop Grumman’s Advanced Technology Development Center, the equivalent of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works or Boeing’s Phantom Works.

In 2009, with Northrop well underway on low-rate initial production of the RQ-180, the Air Force began preparations to evaluate the new vehicle and established a flight-test organization at Groom Lake dubbed the “Mad Hatters.” That same year, the Air Force published an “unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight plan” which outlined a near-term priority requirement for an LO penetrating ISR “special category” UAS. In February 2009, a paper by Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force’s UAS Task Force, referred to an unidentified project as MQ-L/O. (AW&ST Aug. 29, 2011, p. 46).

New information given to Aviation Week now points to 2010 as the key year for the program. First flight of the prototype air vehicle at Groom Lake, known as V1, was believed to have taken place on Aug. 3, 2010. Circumstantial evidence that supported the buildup of pre-first-flight test activity included frequent flights to the site by Northrop Grumman-owned Beech 1900D logistics aircraft, one of which was seen parked by the large Southend hangar in a May 2010 satellite image.

The first prototype, V1, had been in flight testing for more than 14 months when a second vehicle, V2, is thought to have joined the test campaign in November 2011. Three more test and development aircraft are also suspected of following the first vehicles into flight trials over the next 15 months, with first flights believed to have occurred in November 2012 (V3), July 2013 (V4) and February 2014 (V5).

Following the first flight of the fifth aircraft, RQ-180 testing transitioned to Edwards AFB, California, where Detachment 1 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group was officially stood up at the secretive South Base area in March 2014. Tasked with operational test and evaluation, Detachment 1 appears to be a logical choice for the role as the group’s Detachment 2, based at Beale AFB, California, performed evaluations of the Lockheed Martin U-2R/S and RQ-4 Global Hawk.

Activity in the program stepped up through the remainder of the year, with the first flight of V6 believed to have taken place in September 2014. In late 2014 and early 2015, a unit described as Detachment 2 of the 15th Test Flight was stood up at Edwards AFB, likely marking another key phase for acceleration of the new UAS capability toward front-line operational service.

The 15th Test Flight, part of the 53rd Wing headquartered at Eglin AFB, Florida, has responsibility for test management oversight of the Air Force’s high-priority, rapid acquisition programs. According to 53rd Wing instruction documents published in 2014 and updated in 2018, the 15th Test Flight “provides operational test management services for a specific subset of developmental systems that require expedited delivery to the warfighter.” Detachment 2’s sister unit, Detachment 1, was assigned at the time to provide test management of Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel at Creech AFB, Nevada.
Although the US Air Force has yet to lift the cloak of secrecy over the "RQ-180", it is now apparent that this spy drone began flight tests three years before the December 2013 Aviation Week and Space Technology issue containing the article by Bill Sweetman unmasking the "RQ-180" was published. The recent book Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51 by Peter Merlin is the first book to include a section fully covering the story of the "RQ-180", and it is apparent that the "RQ-180" design is derived from one of Northrop Grumman's SensorCraft design studies.