U.S. Air Force flying new unmanned Northrop spy plane -AvWeek

WASHINGTON Fri Dec 6, 2013 10:16am EST

WASHINGTON Dec 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is testing a new unmanned spy plane developed by Northrop Grumman Corp called the RQ-180 that could be ready for military missions by 2015, Aviation Week magazine reported on Friday, citing defense and intelligence officials.

Aviation Week said Northrop won the contract to build the drone after a competition that included Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, maker of the smaller, less stealthy RQ-170 spy plane, one of which went down in Iran.

The RQ-180 was funded through the Air Force's classified budget and would replace the Lockheed SR-71 that was retired in 1998, the magazine reported.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote declined comment on the report, referring queries to the Air Force. Air Force spokeswoman Major Natasha Waggoner also declined comment.

Aviation Week said the new plane carries high-end sensors and surveillance equipment, but could also be used to carry out electronic attack missions.

News about the RQ-180 comes after the Air Force last year sought to halt funding for Northrop's high-altitude, non-stealthy Global Hawk plane despite resistance from Congress. Air Force officials told lawmakers they wanted to use the money for "much higher priorities," but declined to elaborate.

The RQ-180, reported to be similar in size to the Global Hawk, will help the Air Force as it moves toward operations in "denied airspace" instead of the more permissive environments over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Publicly available overhead imagery shows new shelters and hangars sized for an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130 feet at Northrop's Palmdale, California, plant and at Area 51, the Air Force's secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nevada, Aviation Week reported.