Super-secret drone runs test flights over Area 51, report says

A new, super-secret stealth drone - constructed to fly over heavily-defended, hostile areas - is now running test flights at the Air Force’s infamous Area 51 site in Nevada – and could be in military service by 2015, according to Aviation Week.

Called the RQ-180, the next-generation drone is reportedly designed and built by Northrop Grumman for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, although Aviation Week reports it also could be capable of electronic attack.

"The Air Force does not discuss this program," reportedly said Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy when asked about it.

The new drone is said to have a wingspan approaching 130 feet across and weigh more than 30,000 pounds, with the ability to remain over its target for as many as 24 hours, 1,200 nautical miles from base. The magazine writes the RQ-180's design is a modern blend of aerodynamics and stealth, two concepts which typically work exclusive of each other.

But, as Aviation Week also noted, the RQ-180 represents a departure from earlier drone models, designed and built to conduct missions over so-called “permissive,” environments, like Iraq and Afghanistan, to aircraft capable of flying over “contested,” or “denied” airspace involving heavily-defended, hostile areas, like North Korea or even Iran.

The Air Force potentially hinted through earlier statements made by high-ranking officials that such an aircraft as the RQ-180 was in development.

Reflecting on the Air Force’s lack of aircraft capable of going over enemy lines in September, Lt.

Gen. Robert Otto, reportedly said, “We are over-invested in permissive ISR and we have to transform the force to fight and win in contested environments.

"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.”

Otto is the Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, according to Aviation Week.  

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