A key feature of the RQ-180’s design is an improvement in all-aspect, broadband radar cross-section reduction over Lockheed Martin’s F-117, F-22 and F-35. This is optimized to provide protection from low- and high-frequency threat emitters from all directions.
Aviation Week has a new extensive update on the status of the secretive RQ-180 unmanned aerial vehicle. The publication believes that the aircraft is now operational with the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron.
The below is an extraction of their features published in 2013 and 2019 and appeared on Scramble Magazine Facebook Page.
‘“The United States Air Force does not discuss this programme”
‘In December 2013, AVIATION WEEK and Space Technology (Amy Buttler, Bill Sweetman) reported about a new, large, classified and secretive, stealth Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) of the US Air Force. The Northrop Grumman built UAS already flew at that moment for an unknown period and was expected to be operational by 2015.
‘The UAS is funded through the USAF’s classified budget, and is possibly designated RQ-180. The UAS was designed for the penetrating Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic attack mission that was conducted by the SR-71A Blackbird up to 1998. The RQ-180 could operate in non-permissive / contested environments and eclipses the smaller, less stealthy and shorter-range RQ-170 Sentinel and adds the mission of the MQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper fleet. It is believed the USAF as well as the CIA operates the aircraft.
‘Back in 2008, Northrop Grumman’s financial reports point to a possible award of a secret UAS contract, when the company disclosed a US 2 billion increase in the backlog in its Integrated Systems division, the operating unit responsible for building the B-2 bomber, Global Hawk and Fire Scout UAS and X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator. In 2013, Northrop Grumman financial reports acknowledged that an unnamed aircraft programme entered low-rate initial production. It must be noted that new shelters and hangars appeared at Northrop’s Palmdale (CA) and at Tonopah, Area 51 Groom Lake (NV) that could house a 130ft (40 meter) wingspan from 2008.
‘AW&ST reports that the RQ-180 has its roots in Northrop Grumman’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) project that was “cancelled” in 2005. But later the US Navy X-47B and the US Air Force RQ-170 appeared in real life, both with their own prospects.
‘A key feature of the RQ-180’s design is an improvement in all-aspect, broadband radar cross-section reduction over Lockheed Martin’s F-117, F-22 and F-35. This is optimized to provide protection from low- and high-frequency threat emitters from all directions. The design also merges stealth with superior aerodynamic efficiency for increased altitude, range and time on station. The clandestine UAS is also able to refuel mid-air.
Now… six years later, Aviation Week (Guy Norris) again reports about the RQ-180 that still isn’t revealed to the public. The much respected news agency sees a growing body of evidence that the stealthy UAS is now fully operational with the USAF. Their analysis show it flies since 2010 (possibly first flight of “V1” on 3 August 2010). AW reports:
‘Circumstantial evidence that supported the buildup of pre-first-flight test activity included frequent flights to the site by Northrop Grumman-owned Beech 1900D logistics aircraft, one of which was seen parked by the large Southend hangar in a May 2010 satellite image.” A second aircraft, V2, joined the flight test programme in November 2011, followed by V3 in November 2012, V4 in July 2013 and V5 in February 2014. The dubbed RQ-180 is possibly undergoing its Operational Test and Evaluation programme since late 2014. It is believed seven aircraft became fully ops with the recently reformed 427th Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Beale AFB (CA). Still, the USAF declined to comment on the status of the programme. But, as Scramble reported before, when the USA wants to keep something secret, they can do it! So images remain elusive and only rumours continue. Scramble has knowledge from their breaking F-117 deployment reports, that “other” classified high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) “speedy” aircraft supported operations over the Middle East from 2016 onwards. These aircraft flew directly from unknown locations the States to the area of operations and returned to base without fuel stops.
‘Mid-2014, the programme was partly transitioned to Edwards AFB (CA) where Detachment 1 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group was officially stood up at the secretive South Base area in March 2014. Tasked with operational test and evaluation, Detachment 1 appears to be a logical choice for the role as the group’s Detachment 2, based at Beale, performed evaluations of the Lockheed Martin U-2R/S and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
‘Activity in the programme stepped up through the remainder of the year, with the first flight of V6 believed to have taken place in September 2014. In late 2014, and early 2015, a unit described as Detachment 2 of the 15th Test Flight (part of the 53rd Wing at Eglin AFB, FL) was stood up at Edwards, likely marking another key phase for acceleration of the new UAS capability toward front-line operational service.
‘The 15th Test Flight has responsibility for test management oversight of the USAF’s high-priority, rapid acquisition programmes. According to 53rd Wing instruction documents published in 2014 and updated in 2018, the 15th Test Flight “provides operational test management services for a specific subset of developmental systems that require expedited delivery to the warfighter.” Detachment 2’s sister unit, Detachment 1, was assigned at the time to provide test management of Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel at Creech AFB (NV).
‘In November 2015, V7 is believed to make its first flight. In summer 2016, the system took another step toward its operational debut when Detachment 2 of the 9th Operations Group was established at Edwards South Base. The 9th Operations Group is the operational flying component of the Beale-based 9th Reconnaissance Wing and is usually tasked with training and equipping U-2R, RQ-4 and Beechcraft MC-12W Liberty combat elements.
‘Following the establishment of Detachment 2 in 2016, preparations for initial operations entered the final phases and are believed to have culminated in a secret long-range graduation test mission from Edwards sometime in early 2017. No details of the flight, thought to have been code-named Project Magellan, have been acknowledged, but the mission is thought to have focused on validating the performance of the autonomous navigation system at extremely high latitudes—possibly as high as the Geographic North Pole. It should be noted the secret code name was shared with Northrop Grumman’s public search to find an engineering base for the B-21 program around that time.
‘Scramble is able to confirm that late 2017, Edwards South Base was extra secured and the public affairs office told us that an Army Aviation unit was temporarily deployed. But no further info was given, and strikingly no helicopters were seen. But night-activity from South Base was reported.
With this mission accomplished, the RQ-180 was seemingly fit for initial deployment in 2017. And in quick succession during August that year, the 9th Operations Group stood up two new supporting units. Detachment 3 was established at Beale, while Detachment 4 was set up at Andersen AFB (Guam), representing a significant ramp-up in preparations for operational readiness. Detachment 3 had previously operated the RQ-4 out of Guam, while Detachment 4 had also formerly operated the Global Hawk out of Sigonella AB (Italy).’
The following year, 2018, another unit was established at Beale to further test and evaluate the readiness of the aircraft. The activation of Detachment 3 of the 605th Test and Evaluation Sqdn., the command-and-control and ISR test manager for the Air Force’s Warfare Center and Air Combat Command, was accompanied by the deactivation of Detachment 1 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Edwards.
The assets and test personnel of the unit were believed to be immediately transferred to the newly activated 417th Test and Evaluation Sqdn., a unit which previously tested the C-17 and YAL-1 airborne laser. Until recently, the true test focus of the squadron—which was stood up in April 2018—was linked with preparations for B-21 testing. However, at this year’s Air Force Association meeting in September, it was announced that the new bomber test role has been assigned to the 420th Test and Evaluation Sqdn.
Further signs of RQ-180 regular operations support activity are believed to have been indicated by the activation during 2018 and early 2019 of Detachment 5 of the 9th Operations Group at Beale to serve as the schoolhouse unit for the aircraft. Given the 9th Operations Group’s role in training, planning and execution of U-2 ISR missions as well as training for RQ-4 flight crewmembers, this unit would be considered as a logical candidate to support and train RQ-180 operations.
In a final phase of changes this year, all of which have been focused on Beale, Detachment 3 of the 9th Operations Group was deactivated in April and its personnel and assets transferred and immediately activated again as the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron — a shadowy unit that previously operated the MC-12W and was inactivated in November 2015 when these aircraft were transferred to the US Army. However, evidence from open sources indicates the current commander of the 427th RS has held this role since 2015, even though the unit officially did not exist for most of that period.
Although the Air Force has made no reference to operations by the unit involving any particular aircraft type, the 427th Reconnaissance Sqdn., together with Detachment 5 of the 9th Operations Group and Detachment 3 of the 605th Test and Evaluation Group, hosted the opening of a new Common Mission Control Center at the base on 23 April 2019. The new center will “provide combatant commanders scalable, tailorable products and services for use in contested environments,” the Air Force says. “Using software, hardware and human machines, the center will be able to manage C2 productivity, shorten the task execution chain, and reduce human-intensive communication.”
Credit: AVIATION WEEK (the above is an extraction of their features published in 2013 and 2019)
Photo credit: Colin Throm / AW&ST