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Aviation Week: Air Force’s new stealth spy drone is already flying

IMAGE: Aviation Week conceptual image of U.S. Air Force RQ-180
Aviation Week conceptual image of U.S. Air Force RQ-180

A secret unmanned reconnaissance aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. military has already begun test flights and could be ready for prime-time duty by 2015, according to a report in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

The stealth aircraft, dubbed the RQ-180, is designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and could also be capable of electronic attack missions, Aviation Week's Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman say in a report published online Friday.

Aviation Week said that facilities big enough for the RQ-180, with a reported wingspan of more than 130 feet, have been spotted at Northrop’s plant in Palmdale, Calif., and at Area 51, the Air Force’s secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nev. Other evidence for low-rate initial production of the plane comes from Northrop Grumman's financial reports.

Neither Northrop Grumman nor the Air Force would comment to Aviation Week about the classified airplane, which apparently has been under development for years.

The RQ-180 is the successor to the smaller, less stealthy and shorter-range RQ-170 Sentinel, built by Lockheed Martin for the Air Force and the CIA. Dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar,” RQ-170s have reportedly been used for missions in the war in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan and Iran. Iran claimed to have downed and captured an RQ-170 in December 2011.

You can read the full Aviation Week article here.