The Air Force Just Copped to Its Secret Stealth Drone

RQ-180 is official

In December, Aviation Week reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler went public with a months-long investigation. The U.S. Air Force, they revealed, has a new radar-evading spy drone—an approximately 130-foot-wingspan, high-tech robotic jet shaped and specially coated for maximum stealth.

Sweetman and Butler even revealed the new ’bot’s designation—the RQ-180.

The Air Force declined to comment in Aviation Week’s story. Now seven months later, the flying branch has nonchalantly confirmed the RQ-180’s existence.

Speaking at an aerospace industry event in Virginia on June 9, Air Force surveillance chief Lt. Gen. Bob Otto said the RQ-180 would give the Pentagon “better access to contested airspace,” according to John Tirpak, a reporter for Air Force magazine who was at the event.

And that’s pretty much all Otto said. The general “declined to provide details about the aircraft,” Tirpak wrote.

But Otto did explain the context of the potentially multi-billion-dollar RQ-180 development, which according to Sweetman and Butler is being led by contractor Northrop Grumman and might already have produced a flying prototype.

The general told his Virginia audience that the Air Force is “over-invested” in surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for undefended air space. He’s referring to the flying branch’s hundreds of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones and its manned U-2 and RC-135 spy planes—none of which are particularly stealthy.

By implication, the RQ-180 is for defended air space—like over Iran and North Korea. According to Butler and Sweetman, the RQ-180 is similar in shape and size to the B-2 stealth bomber, another Northrop project.

The Air Force’s quiet reveal echoes the similar disclosure of the older, smaller RQ-170 stealth drone. That robot—a Lockheed Martin product—had been flying missions for several years over Iraq, Iran and the Korean Peninsula when civilian photographers finally spotted it at an airfield in southern Afghanistan in 2007.

The ’bot was out of the bag. In December 2009, the Air Force listed the RQ-170 on its official Website, albeit with minimal detail. A year later, one of the drones crashed in Iran. Tehran promptly copied the airframe, if not the entire system, as depicted here.

We don’t know the RQ-180’s precise configuration and dimensions and whether it might carry weapons. We don’t know how many the Air Force is buying and how much they cost. We don’t know the drone’s nickname. It was years before War is Boring found out the RQ-170’s nickname—Wraith.

But thanks to Otto’s admission, at least we know for sure the RQ-180 exists.

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