Unmasking the RQ-180

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The Air Force has long debated how to conduct penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions since the venerable, high-speed SR-71 retired in 1998. But despite the need and a lingering requirement, no visible progress toward that goal was made. That’s because the highly classified aircraft – the RQ-180 – has been developed by Northrop Grumman in secret.
 
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In the Dec. 9 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman (this week celebrating his 40th year as an aviation journalist) reveal the existence of the black-world aircraft now flying at Area 51. 

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Aviation Week worked with artist Ronnie Olsthoorn to construct concept images of the RQ-180 based on its attributes, including its “cranked kite” design.

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In 2009-10, as the RQ-180 neared flight-testing, shelters were built over ramps and engine test pits in Palmdale, Calif., where classified aircraft are developed. 

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Completed between 2006 and 2009 and shielded from view behind an earthen berm, this hangar at Area 51 is most likely the home of the new aircraft.
 
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Click the image to see an illustrated heritage of stealthy UAS
 
Amy and Bill’s report is accompanied by both an interactive timeline and a family tree, highlighting the evolution of U.S. stealth UASs. 
 
They explain in an additional story how the new UAS fits within the context of the Air Force’s plans for a future family of aircraft capable of conducting intelligence and strike missions.
 
Also, don’t miss Bill’s opinion column, ‘Commander’s Intent’ from earlier this year, explaining why UAVs need stealth, and why secrecy can be counter-productive.

Editor's note: Updated to include a reference to the artist who provided the RQ-180 concept image.
 

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