December 06, 2013
Credit: Ronnie Olsthoorn Concept for AW&ST
Click here to read our main story: Secret New UAS Shows Stealth, Efficiency Advances.
In December 2011, Iran proudly displayed on state television a stealthy U.S. unmanned aircraft it claimed it had downed while conducting reconnaissance overflights. The trophy was a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, an aircraft publicly acknowledged by the U.S. Air Force two years earlier.
Even before, the existence of the RQ-170 had been a poorly kept secret. The unmanned aerial system (UAS) was operating out of Afghanistan and flying over Pakistan and Iran for an undetermined period before it was photographed at Kandahar AB, Afghanistan, in 2008. Later, in 2011, it was involved in the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed (AW&ST Dec. 12, 2011, p. 19).
The Pentagon played down that embarrassing loss of the UAS. One reason may now be clear. Defense and intelligence sources say the Sentinel was the result of a quick-reaction project designed for specific missions, and not with an eye toward an enduring presence in the fleet. That position was reserved for a new, secret UAS—Northrop Grumman’s stealthy RQ-180.
To fully understand this new UAS, one must view it in the context of the larger “family of systems” the Air Force envisions to include long-range strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. A 2010 presentation by the Air Force’s director of operational requirements at the time, Maj. Gen. David Scott, made that connection.
Emergence of the RQ-180 allowed the Air Force to reduce requirements for what was once called the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB), a program terminated in 2009 because of its high cost. The follow-on Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) is a less-expensive option that will rely on interoperability with the RQ-180 and other systems in the family.
In 2008, when Northrop is believed to have won the contract to develop the stealthy penetrating UAS, the Air Force was facing criticism from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates that it was falling short in supporting ISR requirements for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But behind the scenes, defense planners and the intelligence community were worried about a lack of information on some well-defended locations such as North Korea and Iran.
This was also in the wake of the Air Force and Navy’s divorce over the effort to jointly develop a single stealthy UAS capable of ISR collection and striking from land or sea. The Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program was terminated late in 2005. The Navy, in search of carrier-based ISR, proceeded with the X-47B UCAS demonstration and now plans to buy a follow-on called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) system. The Air Force directed its funding and technology to a classified program, likely the RQ-180.
Despite heavy pressure on defense spending, the RQ-180 is moving forward. Cuts to classified budgets are “relatively proportional” to those for white-world programs, says acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning. “This is the first time I’ve been in the Air Force where we’ve taken a really close look on the classified side to make sure the investments are closely aligned. We are not missing opportunities there to take cuts on the unclassified side...There were some shifts, [but] nothing overly major at this point.”