Northrop Grumman "RQ-180"

What lurks in that new big hanger at groom? Be a while till we find out I reckon.... Unless it crashes
Given the lack of information, it is difficult to say if such a platform is manned or unmanned, however an unmanned aircraft would have far greater endurance. It could potentially be part of the USAF's long range strike family of systems--which includes a new bomber, cruise missile, electronic attack capabilities and hardware, Aboulafia says.

Aurora? ;)
Triton said:
Given the lack of information, it is difficult to say if such a platform is manned or unmanned, however an unmanned aircraft would have far greater endurance. It could potentially be part of the USAF's long range strike family of systems--which includes a new bomber, cruise missile, electronic attack capabilities and hardware, Aboulafia says.

Aurora? ;)

It's unclear what is meant here by "Global hawk missions". The U-2 still does a lot of things better than Global Hawk does. Global Hawk does some things that the U-2 does not. This is more a factor of the payload than anything else.
As far as anyone knows, the RQ-170 would only perform a small subset of those missions - it may be able to persist at medium altitude in denied airspace, but everything public indicates the payloads would be more limited than what GlobalHawk may be able to carry.
Bill Walker said:
I find it amusing that yet another U-2 replacement has been replaced by the U-2.

It's probably the Air Force Special Platform.
For this thing to operate out of groom, presumably it would need in-flight refuelling capabilities to get to (and loiter in) the relevant areas of interest. UAV in-flight refuelling has been done (by NASA I think?) But this would appear to be in it's infancy, and a crash waiting to happen... So for an operational vehicle with a global reach, optionally manned is a possibility? If it doesn't have a global reach it would have to be forward deployed, for fun let's assume it's operational now, with all the fun and games that have been going on in the world lately any guesses as to likely forward deployment sites?
Mat Parry said:
... any guesses as to likely forward deployment sites?

One of the advantages of UAVs in their relatively small size. For forward deployment, look for anyplace that can receive a C-5 or C-17, and then unload it in a secure area. That is a very long list.
My understanding is, that they are refering to a combination of U-2 and RQ-170 / other smaller stealth drones.

of note (to me at least) in that article were the 2 sentences below

"Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says that among the classified platforms in question could potentially be a long-range stealth reconnaissance aircraft that has long been rumored to be flying in the Nevada desert.

it would make sense for such a platform to have low observable characteristics and have high altitude capability"

A long-range, high altitude aircraft manned or otherwise is not going to be small and easily deployed inside transport aircraft.

With regards to my comment on forward deployments I shall be a little more explicit... Has there been any unusual sightings at airbases that support U-2's in say...
Mat Parry said:
"Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says that among the classified platforms in question could potentially be a long-range stealth reconnaissance aircraft that has long been rumored to be flying in the Nevada desert.

...speaking of Richard Aboulafia. Some of his articles can be found on his website:


"We did not do that without carefully considering how we'd cover that mission with the U-2 and other classified platforms," says Lt Gen Charles Davis...

What if the classified platform is "simply" a customized military derivative of a existing (civil) aircraft?...well, capable of long endurance/high altitude...hmm, what about this one:


The perfect platform for high altitude reconnaissance and surveillance Developed and Certified in 1991, the GROB G 520 is one of the world’s largest fully composite manned and unmanned aircraft, providing an ideal system platform for OPV/UAVapplications (Optional Piloted Vehicle).
The flexible payload-bay concept of the G 520 can accommodate multiple mission systems for both civilian and military applications and operations with a minimum of integration and modification lead time.
Based on its proven airframe and systems reliability the G 520 mitigates development risks for future UAV and or system developments. The G 520 is the cost efficient performance platform for the UAV and OPV requirements of the 21st century, both in the HALE and MALE performance/application sector.
Full reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.

The G 520 EGRETT features:
  • Long endurance, high altitude performance
  • Short runway capabilities
  • Reconfigurable payload installation
  • Full approval for all-weather IFR/Icing operations acc. to LBA/FAA Part 23 regulations
12 payload compartments for up to 1000 kg of mission equipment makes the G 520 an ideal multi-role platform for a wide range of missions. Depending on payload the G 520 has a range up to 5000 km (2700 NM) or up to 11 Hrs (UAV 32 Hrs) on stage time in all weather conditions.

Regards, Michael


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One online source I read a while ago claimed that the Grob G500 Egrett (the previous version) was none other the "famous" TR-3A. Although there is no serious proof to back this up, I found the suggestion interesting and plausible.
How could they make the grob and firebird stealthy? On a side note, on another forum a refueller boom operator spoke of aerial refuelling tests with the rq170 so maybe they don't need the extreme endurance of the global hawk if they just can top up the fuel from a tanker equipped drone?
Concerning Firebird customers: "Although Firebird’s presence at the exercise [Empire Challenge] was sponsored by the U.S. Army, other potentially more immediate customers at the event included U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom)"
If the block 40 gets cancelled you would assume the US pivot towards Asia Pacific loses some important capabilities.... Unless something better lurks in the black?

"Aviation analyst Loren Thompson, of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said retaining the U-2 indicates the Air Force is more concerned with North Korea — and cost-saving — than monitoring areas farther away.
With no pilots to swap out, the Global Hawk can fly at altitudes of 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) for much longer-range missions than the U-2 — more than 32 hours at a time. That is important as China's military growth is changing the balance of power across the region.
"U-2 is very well suited to U.S. needs on the Korean peninsula, and the consequences of losing Global Hawk there will be minimal," he said. "The loss is more serious across the broad expanses of the Western Pacific, where the tyranny of distance makes long range and endurance especially valuable."
Who said Block 40 is best in the first place? The Block 40 radar capability is only part of what the US military ever really wanted. The antenna is just too small to be very satisfactory. The original plan was for the E-10 to carry that radar but E-10 was too expensive to make a lot of sense. Now the plan is Block 40 plus upgrades to a few but not all JSTARS. Kill Block 40 and you still have JSTARS, and still have the easy option of placing the radar on the P-8 Orion, or a new 767 built alongside the new tankers in the future. Given the completely massive data upload requirements of a system like MP-RTIP, and the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite, which would have had laser uplink/downlink capability for the first time, keeping such capable radars on manned platforms is pretty attractive.
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Ian33 said:
How could they make the grob and firebird stealthy?

I see at least two edges on those aircraft are aligned. So they are already stealthy. Add some RAM paint, and there you go.
At least that's what I read on the internet.

Keep in mind that classified platforms are not necessarily stealthy, secret, or sexy. The Air Force Special Platform was very classified, and fueled many rumors and articles speculating about a new stealthy aircraft.
Turned out it was the U-2. And this was just a few years ago.

That said, I keep hearing that the 30th RS flies more than one classified platform. If you spend enough time around Tonopah you will supposedly see something smaller than an RQ-170 that isn't a Reaper.
I'd been looking for info on the AFSP since you mentioned it earlier in this thread Mr Q! :) imagine my disappointment just now to find out it was the U-2 (and that I could find that out myself). A smaller platform for the 30th RS? now what would that be used for I wonder?

Just to put a picture to the cranked kite speculation (nothing we haven't seen before)

Does the USAF have a secret ISR/Strike jet in development at Groom Lake?​

by Dave Majumdar on 4 December, 2012 in Uncategorized

Is there a stealthy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)/strike aircraft secretly under development at the US Air Force’s facility in Groom Lake, Nevada?

It’s hard to say for sure–and to be perfectly frank, I don’t know. But there have been rumors (which I’ve mentioned before in passing here on DEW Line) flying around about some sort of secret stealth ISR/Strike aircraft being built by Northrop Grumman (But I’ve also heard it could be someone else… Lockheed or Boeing are possibilities) that’s being tested at Groom Lake. Just recently, fellow defense aerospace scribe, the esteemed Bill Sweetman–who has been covering the black world for a very, very long time–mentioned such a program in this piece he wrote. Read Bill’s story here…

So the common elements of the various rumors are that it is a fairly large stealth aircraft–with a wingspan roughly comparable to a Boeing 737 (or Global Hawk as Bill says). The planform is supposedly a flying wing design, possibly similar in concept to Northrop’s X-47B. Allegedly, it has weapons bays to hold a fairly substantial payload and it has all of your various ISR sensors installed. Supposedly, it has either a single engine or multiple… If it’s a very long range aircraft, might make sense to have the redundancy of a twin engine configuration. If any of it is true is, of course, open to debate.

Depending on who is telling the story, this alleged secret aircraft is either manned or unmanned. I suppose it could be optionally manned. It would make sense if this aircraft was designed to operate inside heavily defended airspace–given that maintaining control (not to mention getting the reams of data back to the Distributed Common Ground Station for analysis) of an unmanned aircraft inside a communications degraded/communications denied environment is a problem that the Defense Department continues to wrestle with. The USAF’s aspiration for its Long Range Strike Bomber is for it to be optionally manned…

Anyways, these are all just rumors. Nothing solid–the only concrete evidence that suggests this thing might exist is that I’ve seen some Google satellite imagery showing some new hangars that could hold such a craft at Groom Lake. I suppose–and it is supposition–that it could be for some sort of test bed.

But developing an aircraft in complete secrecy is not unprecedented. There were a couple of operational squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-117 operating in secret in Tonopah, Nevada, for more than decade before anyone knew for sure they existed. A more recent example is the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 unmanned aircraft…

I’ve been chasing this particular wild goose for three years, and it could be complete hogwash. But who knows?


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A pure reconnaissance version will be capable of carrying a wide-area surveillance system internally for special mission applications.

A customer has demanded that General Atomics install "Global Hawk-like" payloads on the Avenger, says Don Bolling, a Lockheed Martin senior business development manager.

The company had previously agreed to install Lockheed's electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) on the Avenger, but that effort is on hold due to the undisclosed customer's interest in the high-altitude mission

Hi guys, do you think its possible the classified aircraft could be the Avenger?


Posted on September 5, 2013 by

This picture was taken from a pilot passing through Palmdale about a 16 months ago. What appears is a large flying wing type unmanned aircraft with a dorsal intake. The wingspan appears to be right around seventy feet. The aircraft appears here in the smaller of two wide and low slung aircraft shelters, built around 2010, located by the engine test cells, just north of the Northrop Grumman installation at Plant 42.
Although the aircraft bears a resemblance to the now famous RQ-170 Sentinel, its dimensions are quite larger. It is widely reported that the RQ-170, as we know it at least, has a wingspan of about 75 feet, the reality is that it is actually much smaller. Somewhere between 38 and 50 feet is much more accurate. There have been growing rumors of a larger ”Super Sentinel,” one that may even pack a decent attack capability, as well as upgraded stealth, payload, communications, and other survivability features, not to mention greater persistence. Although this is still rumor supported by scant facts at this point, this aircraft would certainly fit that bill.
The mystery drone could also be the partial replacement for the Global Hawk (which could even be the Above “Super Sentinel”), giving the aircraft low observability for closer proximity monitoring and even allowing for penetration into enemy airspace (see this article for more on this concept and its relation to the RQ-170 family). This supposed stealthy Global Hawk successor, more of a survivable sensor platform than anything else, has been all but admitted to by USAF brass and industry leaders. An aircraft of the dimensions shown in the photo would fill the MALE (Mid-Altitude-Long-Endurance) surveillance role, trading altitude for a lower radar signature when compared to the HALE (High Altitude Long-Endurance) Global Hawk.
This aircraft could also be an un-disclosed UAV/UAS/UCAV test article and/or part of a black, spiral development program. The two side-by-side shelters, of different scales and clearly made for low slung, wide wing-span aircraft, are also interesting to say the least. We know a large facility with a 175 foot door was built-in the mid 2000′s at Groom Lake, maybe this shelter services that same machine from time to time. Notably, both are too small to fit the B-2 bomber, America’s only known large-scale flying wing aircraft. It is also rumored that there is at least one, but possibly multiple, half built technology demonstrators that have been recently finished, updated and flown to support the next generation bomber and other black-world developmental programs. This machine could also be one of those unique airframes.
Some may also say that this is the General Atomics Avenger, I highly doubt it as it does not quite match the Avenger’s long fuselage and the large tail structures would be more prominent due to their size and outward cant angle. On the other hand it could be an X-47B, although does this image show a cranked kite design? I will let you be the judge.
PALM copy

Above is a Google Earth screen shot of the area around the hangar in question. The shelter measures 80 feet, the larger one adjacent to it is almost identical in design and measures some 150 feet. The large one is now sealable, while the smaller one may be as well. In the shot above you can see some distortion that looks almost like a quad platypus tail on the aircraft in question. I doubt this is actually the case. Most likely it is an optical illusion or that effect is caused by objects similar to the structures labeled “clutter” in the image. If anyone knows what those objects are please shoot me an email or comment below.

Some may ask what an aircraft like this is doing in an unsealed structure. You have to test an aircraft’s power plant somewhere and/or prepare it for flight, and this area of Plant 42 is not visible from the outside world, making it an ideal place for clandestine open air testing, while still being shielded form satellite flyovers. Additionally, every program’s level of classification and maturity is different. If this aircraft is an outgrowth of known technology than its technological risk would be much lower than an airframe that highly exotic in nature. In other words, they have not built these fairly secluded and covered engine test cells, which are clearly tailored to flying wing type aircraft, for nothing. They were built to be used, and this is the type of customer that would use them at Plant 42, leading edge technology demonstrators and other classified platforms in development or in limited clandestine operation.
Also of worthwhile note is a piece posted by Defense Writer David Axe (if you do not follow David’s website you should!) in July which also sites some of Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman’s work as well. You can find the entire piece here, below is an excerpt that is of great relevance to the picture of the mystery aircraft posted at the top of this article.
“In December 2012 Aviation Week journalist Sweetman concluded that Northrop Grumman had been working on a large, armed UAV for the Pentagon and CIA — one with greater speed, payload, range and stealth than the current drones.
Development began in 2008, Sweetman surmised, based on his analysis of company documents and interviews with industry insiders. “It is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake,” Sweetman wrote of the new drone.
The purported location, at least, made total sense. The Air Force’s secret facility in Groom Lake, Nevada, is part of the so-called “Area 51” complex and previously was the test site for the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance planes and the F-117 stealth fighter.
If real, the in-development drone could help explain some peculiar moves by the Air Force in 2012 and 2013. The flying branch proposed to abandon almost all of its essentially brand-new Global Hawk UAVs while also cutting production of the smaller Reaper drones.
Congress ultimately nixed both proposals, but the Air Force’s willingness to part with its some of its publicly acknowledged drones was possibly indicative of a brand-new ‘bot preparing to enter service and take over from the older models.
There was plenty of precedent for covert drone development. The Sentinel, of course, was developed in total secrecy by Lockheed Martin and flew combat missions for around five years before breaking cover.
Likewise, Lockheed and rival Boeing both secretly designed and built large, stealthy, jet-powered UAV demonstrators for a Navy effort to add drones to aircraft carrier decks — an initiative Northrop was also openly supporting with a drone prototype of its own.
The new Boeing and Lockheed naval drones, which both bore a superficial resemblance to the Sentinel (as did Northrop’s less secretive naval UAV prototype), were unknown to the outside world except as rumors until the companies unveiled them as part of their sales efforts. Northrop’s purported new UAV was probably meant to build on the concepts explored by the fast, radar-evading Sentinel.
Sweetman estimated only around 20 Sentinels were built in the early 2000s as a stopgap measure pending the introduction of Northrop’s more high-tech robot sometime in the mid-2010s. In 2008, the company’s financial documents listed a $2-billion “restricted programs” contract that Sweetman believed was the development deal for the new drone.
Around the same time, Northrop Grumman hired as a consultant John Cashen, the man most responsible for designing the radar-defeating shape of Northrop’s older B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Not coincidentally, in 2009 Northrop filed patents for two variants of a new manned stealth bomber design, both sharing the same tailless flying-wing shape as the company’s B-2 and Pegasus naval drone prototype.
Northrop’s other efforts apparently influenced the secret drone design. “It is believed to be a single-engine aircraft with a wingspan similar to a Global Hawk,” Sweetman wrote of the new UAV. A Global Hawk spans 116 feet, making roughly as big across as a 737 airliner.
Consistent with the three-year-old patents, Sweetman contended that the secret UAV likely included radar, electronic surveillance systems and radar jammers and, quite possibly, a bomb bay for carrying guided bombs.
Sweetman’s conclusions were just speculation, albeit highly informed speculation. But with a classified budget of no less than $30 billion a year, the Pentagon — to say nothing of the even more opaque CIA — was undoubtedly working on a host of advanced drone designs.
Northrop’s new ‘bot just had the most detectable paper trail. Whether and when this and other secret drones would be revealed to the public was, according to Sweetman, “anyone’s guess.”
Possibly the first member of the public to glimpse Northrop’s new robot, or something similar, did not realize what he was looking at.
In mid-2011 a freelance photographer — I agreed to withhold his name — was visiting the Air Force’s Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, a somewhat less secretive adjunct to Groom Lake.
While walking along the tarmac with an officer guide, the photographer spotted, some 150 yards away, what appeared at first to be a Sentinel drone parked in an open hangar. But upon closer inspection, the photog noticed details inconsistent with the recently-revealed Sentinel.
The engine air intake was different. The skin material seemed less metallic. And the craft was apparently much bigger than the Sentinel, which by then had appeared only in grainy photos taken in Afghanistan. (Tehran’s capture of a crashed Sentinel was still a few months off, but the photographer later said that the details revealed by Iranian footage of the wrecked UAV only confirmed his earlier impressions.)
It was clear the Air Force had not intended the photographer to see the new ‘bot, whatever it was. The colonel leading the tour grew uncomfortable. “I was specifically asked not to photograph it and I complied,” the photog said of the mystery drone.
Recalling the encounter, the photographer concluded he had seen a new variant of the Sentinel. He was not aware at that time that Northrop was developing, and the Air Force and CIA were testing in and around Area 51, a brand-new, larger and better UAV.
It’s possible that’s what he saw. The secret future of drone warfare.”

Is it possible that this aircraft is what the photographer saw at Tonopah and what almost certainly flying over the Nevada ranges and beyond? The timeline seems to fit as this photograph was taken back in mid 2011, as well as the vehicle’s description…
A huge thanks to “SFH” for sharing this unique and intriguing image with all of us!


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In the comments section, Peter Merlin agrees with you!

Assuming that is the real Mr Merlin... Then that's good enough for me! X-47b it is
Mat Parry said:
In the comments section, Peter Merlin agrees with you!

Assuming that is the real Mr Merlin... Then that's good enough for me! X-47b it is

Yup. I don't see why they'd think a USAF UAV would be represented by an X-47B clearly identifiable by the carrier-suited landing gear. Or are they next going to claim that the USAF has secret catapults to shoot these off of trucks?
Magoodotcom said:
Looks more like X-47A tooling to me than X-47B.

X-47B is top right corner. Two sets (top and bottom?) of X-47A gigs in the midle of the insert to left a bit.

Remember when we visited this place and the door to the B-2 servicing hangar was broken so we couldn’t do the part of the tour where the bus stops the door opens and you look in and see it. So we got to hop out of the bus and walk in under the wing and have a look around… Good times at Palmdale!
Strangely, this aircraft looks a lot like an X-47B, is in the place where engine tests are done, and the photo was taken during a period when the X-47B program was doing engine work at Palmdale.

Obviously, this is a new secret program.

Much of Plant 42 and the Lockheed facility is visible from public roads. There is even a rather nice bike trail.


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Interesting. The "RQ-180" designation echoes that of the Lockheed "RQ-170" and, to a lesser extent, the Lockheed "P-175". Is this a special DoD system for UAVs? Why not use the regular Q- series then?
I'm not sure that the RQ-180 designation is 'official'. The only response here from the USAF is "we don't talk about that program."
I believe that this topic should be moved to the "Theoretical and Speculative Projects" board. With all due respect to authors Amy Butler and William Sweetman and Aviation Week magazine, the articles are highly speculative. The Northrop Grumman RQ-180 is not the "Beast of Kandahar" in which we had photographic evidence of the drone and then later confirmation.

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