Sunday, December 8, 2013

Another day, another classified aircraft

Aviation Week is on some kind of a roll here. First they got the scoop on the SR-72, the so-called Son of Blackbird that Lockheed-Martin sees as the Next Big Thing in hypersonic reconnaissance.

Then they blow the lid off the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, which doesn't have a cool name yet but makes up for it by looking awesome... at least in an artist's conception.

Cranked-kite wings. Hey, "Cranked Kite" would be a great band name.

According to the reporting by Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler, the design has been in the works for years, with the goal of replacing and outperforming the RQ-170 Sentinel--aka the Beast of Kandahar--and RQ-4 Global Hawk. That implies a long-range, extremely stealthy aircraft that can potentially stay in the air for more than a day.

The RQ-180 reportedly has a wingspan of about 130 feet, or slightly larger than that of a Boeing 737. That means, most likely, it is designed to operate at high altitudes, much like a U-2 spy plane.

And of course, no one spends billions on a program like this without a clear use in mind. The range and especially the stealth show that this is not designed to operate in a place like, say, Afghanistan, which has no serious air defenses. No, the RQ-180 seems to be after bigger game. North Korea? Iran? Even China? Like its relative the RQ-170, a tour of Asia is almost certainly on the agenda.

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