Northrop Grumman RQ-180

  • rq-180
  • stealth1

The Northrop Grumman RQ-180 is an American stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance aircraft.

The RQ-180 appears to be a follow-on to the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) project which was cancelled in late 2005 when the United States Navy (USN) wanted a carrier-based aircraft (which led to the UCAS-D) while the United States Air Force (USAF) wanted a larger, long-range global strike platform.

In December 2005, the program was split in two, with the USN starting the UCAS-D program which created the X-47B, and the USAF starting a “classified program.” The program was unmasked in Aviation Week & Space Technology in a 9 December 2013 cover story following several months of research.

The RQ-180 was secretly funded through the USAF’s classified budget. Northrop Grumman was given the task to build the aircraft after a competition in which it beat out Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Northrop Grumman is believed to have been awarded a development contract for the RQ-180 in 2008, with deliveries of low-rate production aircraft beginning in 2013. Satellite imagery of Area 51 shows large hangers that could house a 40 meters or larger wingspan aircraft. The RQ-180 contract may also be related to the expansion of Northrop Grumman’s production facility in Palmdale, California.

According to industry sources, the secret development of the RQ-180 explains public statements of USAF officials calling for penetrating Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities . This may explain the service’s perceived lack of commitment for the RQ-4 Global Hawk, instead favouring higher priority “classified platforms”.

The USAF also does not want to purchase and maintain large numbers of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper systems in order to have the ability to penetrate “denied airspace” and persistently provide ISR coverage. The RQ-180 may also be responsible for the termination of the Next-Generation Bomber program in 2009 due to costs, and the emergence of the next generation Long Range Strike Bomber program that would be cheaper and also work together with the RQ-180. The USAF MQ-X program which was to have found a platform to replace the Reaper may have been cancelled in 2012 due to the RQ-180.

Lockheed Martin is developing its own solution to the problem of operating an ISR in denied airspace, known as the Lockheed SR-72, which relies on flying at hypersonic speeds. Northrop Grumman’s stealth design was seen as less susceptible to acquisition problems and risky technologies and could be put into service sooner, possibly as soon as 2015.

The RQ-180 addresses a need for conducting penetrating ISR missions into defended airspace, a mission type left orphaned with the retirement of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in 1998. The RQ-180 is to be equipped with an AESA radar and passive electronic surveillance measures, and may be capable of conducting electronic attack missions. The RQ-180 shows a shift away from UAVs which operate in permissive environments, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, to aircraft which can perform missions in contested airspace. It is larger, stealthier, and has a longer range than the RQ-170 Sentinel which had previously been used for these types of missions.

The RQ-180 is believed to have a cranked-kite airframe like the Northrop Grumman X-47B, but with a much longer wingspan, perhaps as much as 40 meters.

The RQ-180 is believed to be approximately the size of the Global Hawk, which weighs 14,630 kg and have similar capabilities of endurance (24 hours) and range (2,200 km). This far exceeds that of the RQ-170, which has an endurance of 5-6 hours. It will have superior all-aspect, broadband radar cross-section reduction features compared to previous stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. The airframe is also reputed to have superior aerodynamics giving better range, endurance, and service ceiling.

To achieve this balance between stealth and aerodynamics, advanced computation fluid dynamics were used to model airflows in three dimensions. With the results of this analysis, engineers can achieve laminar flow across most of the RF-180’s wing. Further aerodynamic control on the 180 is achieved through the use of new structural and manufacturing techniques that led to a surface free of any fasteners.


Max. Takeoff Weight
Max Speed

USANorthrop GrummanLos Angeles, California