Northrop Secretly Builds RQ-180 Spy Drone

Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the U.S. Defense Department’s biggest contractors and the driving force behind the Navy’s experimental X-47B drone shown above, has developed a new classified unmanned aircraft for the Air Force, according to a news report.

The system, known as RQ-180, is designed to fly undetected through contested airspace, similar to the now-retired SR-71 Blackbird plane, according to an article by Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week. That may make it a potential weapon against countries such as North Korea, Iran or China.

While the Falls Church, Va.-based contractor and the Air Force have been tight-lipped about the drone and its so-called “cranked kite” design, the reporters pointed to corporate financial statements and satellite imagery of infrastructure that hints at the classified program.

For example, Northrop recently disclosed that an unnamed aircraft program entered early production — several years after reporting a $2 billion backlog increase in the unit that develops cutting-edge weapons programs such as the X-47B drone, according to the article. What’s more, satellite imagery shows new infrastructure such as hangars to accommodate an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130 feet at Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif., site and at the Air Force’s Area 51 test center in Groom Lake, Nev., according to the report.

That would make it much bigger than Lockheed Martin Corp.’s RQ-170 Sentinel, which has an estimated wingspan of between 65 feet and 90 feet. The RQ-170 has been used for high-profile covert operations such as the 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bethesda, Md.-based contractor last month unveiled plans for an unmanned successor to the famous SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The new twin-engine, hypersonic aircraft, known as SR-72 and nicknamed “Son of Blackbird,” will be designed to fly as fast as Mach 6. That’s six times the speed of sound — more than 3,500 miles per hour — and twice as fast as its predecessor.

Northrop’s new drone — which is unlikely to go by the moniker “Son of Sentinel” for obvious competitive and legal reasons — has already begun test flights and may be ready for operational missions in 2015, according to Aviation Week. The timeline may explain why the Air Force has pushed to buy fewer of the company’s Global Hawk drones.

Northrop made headlines earlier this year when its experimental X-47B unmanned craft successfully landed aboard the deck of a moving aircraft carrier and is competing for the chance to build the Navy’s carrier-based drone fleet.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • FormerDirtDart

    I have to wonder if the Air Force is purposely leaking information on this aircraft to get congress to withdraw the mandated acquisition of additional Block 30 Global Hawks, that the Air Force has made clear they don’t want.

    • ronaldo

      I think that is the only reasonable conclusion. Thanks FDD.

      • Bradley Woods

        I agree! They do not need the Block 30 regardless!

    • Davis

      That’s probably their intent but knowing Congress, it won’t matter; They’ll just buy both!

    • blight_

      “Here Northrop, take the taxpayers money! I want my cut. Now.”

    • Kim Scholer

      At an airshow some years ago I talked to a Boeing representative, who was keen on selling F-18s to the Danish air force. Asked how big the ‘political’ slice was on a pie chart with ‘price’ and ‘technology’ as well, he cheerfully suggested that politics was the major factor.

    • steve

      Guess tha “secret” went to hell in a hand basket, didn’t it?

  • Virgil Cuttaway

    There are many Chinese Americans working in the US defense imdustry, including at Palmdale. The Chinese will know all about this project before it becomes operational.

  • Lance

    We need recon planes im not a fan of drones last thing we need is Russia China or North Korea having there hands like Iran did on a top secret drone that malfunctioned. Keep man in the loop that’s alot more sane than drones.

    • blight_

      Until Gary Powers refuses to take his suicide pill.

      • platypusfriend

        Well, he still got the Intelligence Star and the Director’s Medal. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have taken mine, either.

        • blight_

          Which kind of proves the Drone School’s point. A human can often be as revelatory as capturing an intact drone, perhaps even more so.

          Nobody cried much when the D-21 drones fired from SR-71’s disappeared over Lop Nur. I’m sure the Taiwanese U-2 pilots trained for reconnaissance over the People’s Republic were missed…in Taiwan.

          I’m curious to see what Lance thinks is the bigger risk: That a single drone land (either intact or not intact), or getting a pilot who bails out and fails to take the suicide pill?

          And of course, skilled manpower doesn’t grow on trees either.

          • FormerDirtDart

            The glaring hole in your curious inquiry: “…what Lance thinks…”
            A historical appreciation of Lance’s observations more so illustrates a process devoid of cognitive function.

          • tiger

            How about Cuba? The loss of Maj. Anderson’s U-2 had the Joint Chiefs ready to take out the SAM sites. History would have had a different ending to the missile crisis. You really do not need a guy to click photos on one man suicide missions anymore.

          • blight_

            Forgot about that one.

            Indeed, I wonder what would have happened if Anderson had survived. I fear they would’ve tried to rescue him, and the results would’ve been nasty.

        • hibeam

          Did he get a free phone?

          • nics

            It all depends on what “get” means, what “free” means, what “phone” means, and what “free phone” means.

    • tiger

      Yep, we Need Jim Belushi & his P-40 & On his one man scout mission to find the enemy again……………

  • Guest

    Considering what happened with the RQ-170 that crashed in Iran, I wonder
    if this one will have a self-destruct system?

    • hibeam

      We could have destroyed it on the ground but the Commander in Golf was too timid to act.

    • steve

      Looks lie another Hitler’s German Military designs being recreated but the US is doing the recreating. All from captured info and material after the end of W2…… We sure allowed a ton of Nazis in our Country, to escape their wartime involvements just to have them work for the US government…. I wonder if the price was worth it, considering the millions of folks hat suffered and died at their hands during WW2??? I don’t think so myself…..

      • blight_

        Think they would’ve been better off in Soviet captivity?

        And you worry about guns going to Mexico…even more German engineers and scientists in the Soviet Union. Ruh roh.

  • hibeam

    The Iranians say this one doesn’t handle as well as that other one.

  • Hunter76

    Unmanned spying. Excellent!

  • ribby22

    Now, now let’s not totally dismiss someone for not elaborating on a fairly public incident that happened at N.G. a few years back when an ex-Chinese national who had came to USA and was granted US citizenship that was working on the B-2 project who had stolen Terabytes of Top Secrete material related to stealth projects, and was sending it back to Chinese officials. ( PLA ) The material included classified material on the B-2 as well as some Stealth R&D material, which the US tax payer had shelled out Billions for . We need to all sit down and write a few letters to our elected folks in D.C. and make sure this type of stuff does not happen again.

    • nics

      Never heard it. Reliable sources please. (links)

    • SMSgtMac

      He’s probably thinking of the India-born Noshir Gowadi who was selling classified know-how to foreign countries including China after he retired from Northrop. His specialty was low observables in the IR spectrum.…
      May his rotting in a jail cell for life be cut short by his own hand.

    • Dfens

      Boeing did the same thing, and all that happened to them is that they continue to make money off the US taxpayer hand over fist:…

    • Chief Cockeye

      What happened to the “NOFORN” caveat? Why do we have ANY foreign nationals working in our defense industry? Sure, “NOFORN” only means ‘No Foreign Dissemination’; but it should be interpreted to mean that no foreign national, or persons with immediate/recent connections to any foreign country, would be allowed anywhere near our defense industrial complex. Certainly no where near our classified military projects.

  • Gar Guddy

    lets not forget.., the lessons from history.., or we pay to relive the consequences. “De ja vue all over again”(Yogi B.)

  • Rudy

    Perhaps the Defense Committee in Congress knows what is needed to protect us. Drones may be major factor in the next war. The military and defense contractors should have an unique internet system used only by and for the military and defense that is in no way connected with any other internet system.

    • Art

      They do and have had for years.

  • MWang

    To Mr. Virgil Cuttaway and the others who think like him,

    I hope you don’t really mean to imply that having Chinese Americans working for the US defense industry necessitates that Chinese Americans will give away defense secrets.

    I am a Chinese-American, born and raised near Philadelphia, PA. Both my grandfathers were high ranking government officials in the now essentially defunct Republic of China. My god-uncle was a general in the small Republic of China air force that fought the Japanese in China with the help of the Americans (He helped fly American made planes thru Alaska and Russia to China to then fight the Japanese). Both my parents as children have extraordinary stories fleeing the communist take-over of China. They grew up in Taiwan; graduated from National Taiwan University, then came to the US seeking a better life.

    My father raised me with a passionate love for this country and it was no surprise then that I wanted to serve this country. I sought and received a congressional nomination to USMA and though God did not have that in his plan for me I am now a materials science engineer and have worked for both the Army Research Laboratory (ARL-RDECOM) at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and at Letter Kenny Army Depot (LEAD-AMCOM). I have worked on/supported PATRIOT, AVENGER, HMMWV, MRAP, RHINO and various other programs during my tenure as a engineer and I am currently working in co-operation with ARL on developing a further fundamental understanding of the failure behavior of complaint adhesives; understanding their non-linear fracture behavior (read into this one possible application is improved/optimized light-weight armor).

    And you are to tell me that because I am Chinese-American, I am somehow more of a security risk than any other researcher of a different ethnicity? I tell you sir, that you don’t even know me.

    Do I have family in China and Taiwan? Yes, of course. As I’ve only been to Taiwan twice in my life (once when I was born, and again when I was 8); I hardly know them. Yet, I have dozens of friends and family serving in the military; some still currently serving in Afghanistan; some just recently returned.

    The assertion you made is the definition of ignorance, which is defined as the lack of knowledge or information. You did not take into account my family history, my current relationships or my individual character; which I guarantee you far more influences my decision making than any of my cultural origins do.

    Can I tell you of an experience I had working at LEAD? My boss at the time made a comment about how those “damn Chinese were taking all our damn manufacturing jobs”… I was sitting right there… (his most recent hire) working in an job that supported the repair and manufacture of defense assets (see listed above). I felt embarrassed to even be there at the moment and my more senior Jewish, co-worker pointed out to him how ignorant a comment that was, especially with me sitting at my desk right next to him. He fumbled out some excuse about how I was an American and so by definition he didn’t mean me, but you can see how something like that would make me feel, yes?

    Your comment makes me feel similar. I know you love this country and want the security of our defense secrets. I want that too. Heck, I’m trying to invent these defense secrets!

  • MWang


    There are the Edward Snowden’s and Bradley Manning’s of this world, certainly; but do you unfairly generalize and characterize me to being like them just because I am Chinese-American?

    If your answer is still yes; then that’s fine, your entitled to your opinion in this country where freedom of speech is espoused. I would encourage you and your sons to then take over my job and the jobs of the many Chinese Americans in Science, technology, engineering, and math (AKA STEM) which drives our defense industry.

    If you want to learn about how depleted uranium rounds (i.e sabot rounds) are able to penetrate armor thru it’s self-sharpening material property (as it’s crystal structure fragments) or how HEAT rounds punch thru traditional Rolled-Homogenous Armor (RHA) and how CHOBHAM armor is designed to defeat this, be my guest! If you want to learn the different fundamentals of how radar deflecting and radar absorbing materials, both of which are used in stealth technology today, work and then advance the field of study you would be doing a great service to this nation! I welcome you and members of every-ethnicity to do so.

    The fact of the matter is; many people don’t go into this field of study because it is frustrating, hard, and often unappreciated. I tell you, many Chinese Americans work in this field because our parents expected us to excel at science and math and told us that the careers we should aim for are to be doctors, scientists, or engineers. So, please do this nation a favor and tell your sons and daughters to do the same.

    Now let’s talk about what makes a person susceptible to being turned into an asset for a foreign government. This comes straight from a security briefing I sat in at ARL. People, of any race or ethnicity (seriously they have a book listing the cases), with radical ideologies, disillusionment, extraordinary vices or attachments, or money problems make the best candidates for extracting secrets from. If someone has a gambling problem and is in a lot of debt; they could be approached by a foreign agent and turned into an asset. The same goes for someone, like a Bradley manning or Eric Snowden, who’s radical personal ideologies lead them to give away national secrets.

    So then, what stops the millions of defense industry researchers from being bribed, arm-twisted, or radicalized into giving away our secrets? I would say, personal character, our relationships with our neighbors, and our love for our country.

    Martin Luther King Jr. The great civil rights advocate is famously quoted to have said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Kind David, in the Biblical Pslam 7:8-9 says this
    “Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
    according to my integrity, O Most High.
    Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
    and make the righteous secure—
    you, the righteous God
    who probes minds and hearts.”

    I think you and I both would like to live in a world where we are not judged to be this or that based on the color of our skin. I would hope that people would judge me based on my character. I ask that in the future; you consider this before making broad sweeping generalizations like you and many others did in this thread.

  • oblatt2

    America is heading for half a century at least of a very painful economic decline. And its going to be be very nasty for anyone who looks Chinese. Historically there is always an upsurge in racism when empires decline.

    Maybe you can stick it out but at least teach your kids Mandarin so they have the opportunity to leave and find better jobs.

    • blight_

      They need useful skills first, though I suppose the more distressing alternative is America turning into District 12, with nominal independence so long as they send tribute and kids to the Hunger Games and obey the will of District 1 in Beijing.

  • Dfens

    It is sad that the article reference that piece of crap Lockheed is pedaling as the SR-72. That thing won’t go Mach 6 regardless of what kind of engines they put on it. Hell, it would be lucky to be as fast as the SR-71. These stealth flying wing reconnaissance aircraft that are being unveiled all have the same problems as manned stealth aircraft. The coatings are unreliable and subject to damage. It takes these aircraft a long time to get on station because of their subsonic cruise speeds. It’s sad that we continue to go backwards in aircraft technology even as our defense propaganda continues to spin every aircraft as if it were some miracle of God. Truly great aircraft are designed by men, not committees.

  • Robert Kuurstra

    If you like your drone you can keep it

  • dba

    There’s a reason I never thought of applying for a job in defense industries although there are tons around here. My skill set is largely in IT which is even more sensitive.

    I’m thinking, why would I want to work in a field where I have to wonder ‘are those looks on their faces looking at me meaning something else’? And I can’t surf internet freely, major minus for me.

    I was working in a small startup few years ago and one of my coworker I worked closely with was a veteran (in 30s or 40). During one of the Happy Friday night drinking session in office, I happened to be in the bathroom (sitting) when he and one other came in. They didn’t know what I was in there and apparently with loose lips from alcohol, they were chatting and the topic of Asian-American came up.

    The dude said ‘WHAT ASIAN-American’ (they are not American)?

  • Mitch S.

    Gee, why the RQ180 or SR72 when we’ve had the Aurora for over a decade?
    Wasn’t it Sweetman who told us that?

    • Dfens

      There’s a reason they haven’t leaked anything about the Aurora airplane(s) yet. Failure stays classified.

      • Mitch S.

        I wonder when the real story will come out.
        I figure there was hype and exaggeration with the Aurora sightings but still…
        The AF strenuously wanted to close the Global Hawk buy despite Congressional objection - now we know it’s because the RQ180 is in the wings.
        So what was “in the wings” when the AF closed the SR71 program despite congressional objections?
        Has been 20 years already, it’s about time.

        • Dfens

          Maybe Snowden has something on it in his “doomsday” file, but other than that don’t look for anything to become unclassified. Like I said, failure stays classified. What the aviation magazines called “the Aurora” was most likely more than one airplane program, and very real.

  • Bob Rowe

    People ! We can see your face, But can’t read your mind ! We can see your body but can’t look into your heart ! We must be mindful-not cinnical ! SOME spy’s look like YOU !!

  • mrlee

    During the Vietnam time, our equipment was supposed to have explosive self destruct side packs on all of the boxes. The only problem was that some of them went off when they weren’t supposed to. So we decided to take them all off, and hope that if the bird went down, all of the boxes would be destroyed in the process. I imagine that that is still a consideration even today.

  • Andy

    Make sure to have a self destruct device. so no one can COPY AND TOUCH IT WHEN IT CRASH.

  • chaos0xomega

    I really gotta wonder, they keep making these things bigger and bigger, are they really so “blinded by stealth” that they don’t think someone will spot one with a mark-1 eyeball?

    Besides that, it seems odd to me that we are investing all this money into ISR platforms that could, conceivably, be utilized for strike purposes… I mean… its BIG ENOUGH…

    • Riceball

      Because it’s bloody hard to see a plane flying at 3+ times the speed of sound at edge of atmosphere altitudes. To spot that you have to be looking at the right spot at the right time to see it and then there’s the matter of tracking it on you AD systems; the places these stealth aircraft would fly over are often places who don’t like their air space violated and will attempt to shoot down anything that does and IR & visual targeting don’t work very well on high speed/altitude targets.

  • John P

    Only a fool would not have a distruct package on these things

    My other comment is ——— do you consider yourself ?????nationality/American or do you consider yourself an American of ??????????? decent??
    To me that might signify some order of priority when it comes to allegiance.

  • Jersey Viper

    Listening into your comments, gotta say for such a smart group of guys & gals you do need to think out of the box. About Chinese going back to the mainland, how many do you think do you think may be working for us or going back to work for a free China? How many good ol Americans working for our military or in sensitive areas have given away secrets to other countries? As far as destruct devices, unless it disintegrates the unit its on, forensic investigation can find out some secrets. Get back to talking shop I need to catch up on technology.

  • @RioFalcon

    Well, I guess it’s no longer a secret… This military security program really sucks! Who is in charge?


    Just as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighter jets do not resemble a flying wing like the F-117 or B-2; one has to wonder whether the RQ-180 is really the most ideal shape for a stealth drone especially when it’s a subsonic aircraft that cannot maneuver very easily.

  • Col. BMT
  • Ceiling fans

    This is especially unfortunate given the type of housing and other
    environmental factors we live in. Considering the function stated
    earlier on, Hunter ceiling fan will assist equally ac and home heating system of your property.

    Conversely, a fan that is rotating counterclockwise will pull cool air
    near the floor upward which will help to cool the living space.

  • Roscoe

    We know that most spies that sell American technology are of British and German decent. Maybe we should stop giving top secret clearances to all people of British and German decent!

    Seriously, I agree, it is hard to find visual clues that can indicate a person’s heart. So we must trust and verify, plus compartmentalize the various technologies.