Beyond the financial disclosures, publicly available overhead imagery shows new shelters and hangars sized for an aircraft with a 130-ft.-plus wing span at Northrop's Palmdale, Calif., plant and at Area 51, the Air Force's secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nev. (see photos below). The company also pushed for a substantial expansion of its Palmdale production facilities in 2010, perhaps to support work on the RQ-180 (AW&ST Nov. 22, 2010, p. 28).
The new aircraft's existence explains an inconsistency: Air Force officials have frequently called for a new, penetrating ISR capability. Yet there has been no public evidence that the service has been planning to develop such an aircraft.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force's top uniformed acquisition official, said the service has no requirement for more Global Hawks beyond 2014 and wants to “use that money for much higher priorities.”
Defending the planned cuts to the Global Hawk, Davis said, “We did not do that without carefully looking at how we cover that [mission] with the U-2 and other classified platforms.” But when asked during the open congressional hearing to explain, he said, “You'd probably need to go into detail within another forum.”
In September, Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, said the service's “first priority” in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is “to rebalance and optimize our integrated ISR capabilities.
“The mix is not where it needs to be,” he 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.”
The Air Force could not afford to buy and maintain the target number of 65 MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator combat air patrols beyond 2014, Otto added, possibly pointing to a shift in priorities to the new Northrop system.
These public statements are a byproduct of an internal debate over the number of the new secret UAS to be acquired. While there is apparently agreement on the need for a small “silver-bullet” force for special military and CIA missions, a larger fleet could be an enabler for fighters and bombers against a wide range of targets. A 2009 report by the influential think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recommends a force of five 10-aircraft squadrons of high-altitude, stealthy, ISR unmanned penetrators. But such a large fleet would be costly and could compete for funding with the Joint Strike Fighter, the Long-Range Strike Bomber and other high-priority programs.
In addition, if the U.S. procures more than a few of the secret RQ-180 aircraft, it will be harder to keep them under wraps. Historically, the Air Force has resisted establishing operational units at Area 51, its most secure known operating base, because maintaining compartmentalization there between multiple secret programs becomes difficult. For example, workers are usually confined to their buildings when a classified program other than their own is performing tests outside. The disruption to work grows if one program is running at an operational tempo.