BEALE AFB – According to AviationWeek, a new American stealth Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) reconnaissance aircraft is supposedly fully operational now with the U.S. Air Force in a penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role, operating from Beale Air Force Base in California.
Almost 6 years ago, AviationWeek already disclosed the existence of an unmanned stealth reconnaissance aircraft. However, no photos have been published yet, due to the fact that the aircraft is kept secret very well by the USAF. The aircraft – named Northrop-Grumman RQ-180 – supposedly would look like the B-21 Raider, the new USAF stealth bomber, which will eventually replace the B-1 and B-2.
In 2010, a prototype of the Northrop-Grumman RQ-180 is said to have made its first flight from the secret Groom Lake Test Site, located in Area 51. In 2014 – when there were already 5 flying RQ-180s – the project was moved to Edwards AFB in California, home of the Air Force Test Center.
Earlier the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron was re-established at Beale AFB. AviationWeek suspects that this squadron is flying with the RQ-180. Beale AFB is also home to the U-2 and RQ-4 reconnaissance aircraft. The RQ-4 is also unmanned. Like these aircraft the RQ-180 is also used for reconnaissance flights from a high altitude. Unmanned aircraft have the advantage that they can make extremely long flights at very high altitudes, without the inconveniences or risks for the pilot.
Replacing the iconic SR-71
The RQ-180 is the USAF’s replacement for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was operated by the USAF from 1964 to 1998. A total of 32 SR-71s were built; 12 were lost in accidents with none lost to enemy action. The SR-71 has been given several nicknames, including ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Habu’.
The SR-71’s characteristic shape was based on the A-12 which was one of the first aircraft to be designed with a reduced radar cross-section.
Since 1976, it has held the world record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, a record previously held by the related Lockheed YF-12.
(Head image: The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a demonstration unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) designed for aircraft carrier-based operations. Image: DARPA)