Tag: RQ-180

Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force Video

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force Video
What appears to be the is visible in this digitally altered screenshot from the USAF video.

Several interesting projects are featured in a short promotional video, including the secretive and the RQ-180.

A video, published on Youtube on Nov. 8, 2021, by the U.S. Air Force Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE) under the title “Heritage Today – ISR and Innovation” provides a new look at some of the most interesting and secretive U.S. ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) projects.

The less than 3 minutes clip is an overview of the evolution of the ISR mission since the beginning. At the 2:25 mark, after showing a flying RQ-4 Global Hawk, the video focuses on a stealthy flying-wing drone whose planform appears to be similar to the artworks published on the front cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology when the project was unveiled in 2013. The planform image is introduced by the following commentary: “The days of balloons and biplanes have been replaced by white bats,” and considered that the RQ-180 is nicknamed the “Great White Bat” (or sometimes “Shikaka”, a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Ventura 2), the appearance of the cranked kite design clearly alludes to the new clandestine spy drone.

Still, it’s worth noticing that the shape of the drone featured in the latest USAF video does not fit the one of the unmanned aircraft, believed to be indeed a real RQ-180, spotted over California, last year, and the Philippines earlier this year. In other words, we are probably not shown the actual RQ-180 but something loosely similar to it, in preparation of a somehow official unveiling.

- Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force VideoThe cranked-kite planform that alludes to the RQ-180 White Bat in a screenshot from the USAF video

However, the one of the “”White Bat” is not the only interesting “cameo” or easter egg you can find in the video.

The really interesting one, comes later, at the 2:34 mark, when the video cuts to the dark image of a sleek and stealthy aircraft in a hangar that seems to match the shape of the SR-71 successor, also unofficially dubbed the “Son of Blackbird“, the Lockheed SR-72.

The SR-72 is an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike platform designed for Mach 6. Very little is known about this aircraft besides some alleged sightings, rumoured every now and then, and the presumed date for a first flight possibly in 2025.

Again, the one in the USAF clip is probably just a computer-generated image, with many different details and possibly a significantly different shape than the real thing; still it’s worth of remark since it is one of the very few (somewhat official) allusions to the new aircraft that the service has done since the program was revealed. For the records, the SR-72 was featured in a poster issued by the Air Force in 2017 for the 70th anniversary of the service, that you can find here: the shape appears to be pretty much the same as the mysterious aircraft in the latest video.

Interestingly, the video also shows the outline of the secretive X-37B spaceplane in a display of what seems to be a command center.

- Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force VideoThe silhouette of the X-37B can be seen in a screen of a sort of command and control center for the spaceplane.

We have wrote a lot about the X-37B in the past here at The Aviationist. Here below you can find an excerpt with some of the key facts and some theories about the missions it carries out:

The Air Force’s X-37B began as a test project with NASA in 1999 but was acquired by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004. Most sources list two operational X-37B spacecraft and a single X-37A. The fact that only three exist, their missions and roles are classified and they operate in space makes them incredibly difficult to get photos of, especially when performing an active mission as in Vandebergh’s photos.

Little is known about the current role of the two X-37Bs and the single X-37A. Most likely the X-37Bs are in some form of “operational test” use with the USAF while the X-37A reportedly remains a combined Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA spacecraft with an equally secretive role.

While most information in the public domain lists both the X-37B and X-37A as “test” vehicles, the X-37B has performed unusually long duration space flights for testing.

Three theories [about the type of missions the X-37B has carried out thus far] have prevailed:

The first theory is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform. The spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. This theory is debunked by most analysts.

Secondly, and most plausibly, the spacecraft may be a platform for gathering intelligence. This could include signals intelligence such as activities of communications and surveillance satellites, both civilian and military. With approximately 2,271 satellites in orbit around the earth at various altitudes performing a wide variety of functions this theory tends to be the most realistic. It may also be ground mapping radar and other surveillance mediums. Since the large internal payload bay of the X-37B, about the size of the interior of a small general aviation aircraft such as a Cessna Caravan, is interchangeable the spacecraft could be “mission adaptive”, meaning it could be reconfigured for various types of surveillance. That this last mission was so long in duration suggests the X-37B may have had a means of transmitting intelligence from space back down to earth, somehow beyond the capabilities of existing space based surveillance platforms like satellites.

Lastly, and most unlikely, the X-37B remains a research project. It could potentially be a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space, releasing new orbital packages into space or any number of other roles not yet performed operationally. Given the duration and investment into the program along with the operational security surrounding it this theory seems least likely. A major part of X-37B operations are administered by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a shadowy U.S. government agency located in Arlington, Virginia.

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force Video
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year
The main photograph is a crop of Michael Fugit’s shot. On the right box, the mysterious UAS photographed over California in 2020. (Image credit: TheAviationist using Michael Fugit and Rob Kolinsky photos).

Let’s talk about the mysterious flying wing aircraft that flew over the Philippines a few days ago.

On Sept. 2, 2021, at 06.15AM LT, Michael Fugnit took a photo of a rather mysterious aircraft at high altitude flying with a southwestern heading over the Philippines.

“I didn’t hear any sounds from the aircraft,” told us Michael in a message. “I was waiting for the sunrise since it is my daily routine to capture sunrise and sunsets when I took the photo from the top hill of Brgy. San Roque Municipality of Sta. Magdalena Province of Sorsogon”.

Analysis on the only photograph Michael took of the aircraft suggest that the image is genuine and not doctored.

- Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last YearThe original image taken by Michael Fugit.

The shot features what seems to be a large-span flying wing with straight trailing edge and trails two contrails, suggesting closely paired twin turbofan engines: in other words, the one photographed over the Philippines a few days ago appears to be strikingly similar to the mysterious UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) spotted flying over Palmdale, California, in 2020, a UAS thought to be a  either the highly classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 drone, or a Lockheed Martin P-175 Polecat derivative.

This is what we wrote in November 2020, when the image of the UAS flying over California first appeared online:

The photo, which was claimed to be taken, “…in California just north of Edwards [AFB]”, shows an aircraft trailing two prominent contrails, suggesting the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken was in excess of approximately 25,000 ft. Contrails require moist, cold air to freeze the water vapor expelled during normal jet engine combustion. Considering the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken, the size of the aircraft in the photo may be significant. Published estimates of the wingspan of the RQ-180 drone claim it may be as large as 130 ft. Estimates of the wingspan of the Polecat suggest it is about 90 ft.

The U.S. Air Force does not acknowledge the existence of the RQ-180 drone, but a number of factors seem to support theories of its existence and even operational deployment. One theory that supports the operational deployment of the RQ-180 is the reduction in the number of RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. It’s possible a newer, more capable RQ-180 may have taken over missions previously assigned to RQ-4s.

Forbes magazine reporter David Axe is another keen-eyed journalist who recognized the significance of the new Kolinsky photo. Late Sunday night Axe wrote, “The Air Force reportedly tested the roughly 170-feet-wingspan RQ-180 at Groom Lake, part of the Area 51 complex in Nevada. By early 2020 the RQ-180 apparently was so well-established in Air Force service that the flying branch was comfortable cutting its fleet of non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.”

[…]

Observers of the photo on internet forums have made some interesting insights about the Kolinsky photo. Some suggest the planform of the aircraft in Kolinsky’s image is nearly identical to the Polecat. A revived P-175 (the original one crashed in 2007) or a testbed based on it? Maybe.

Provided they are the same type, the main difference between the sighting last year and the one of a few days ago is that the latter proves the mysterious (most probably unmanned) aircraft would be already conducting operational missions around the world. In fact, based on the location where the aircraft was spotted, it seems reasonable to believe it was returning from a mission in the South China Sea where there might have been interesting Chinese activity to surveil. Dispatching a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) low-observable drone from either the U.S. or a forward operating location (like Andersen Air Force Base, in Guam, that already hosts the RQ-4s) to cover some specific time-sensitive target, would totally make sense. These missions could require the aircraft to cross some unpopulated areas of the Philippines during daylight conditions (as happened on Sept. 2), when chances to be spotted from the ground are scarce.

Obioviously, there are many other intriguing theories, including the one that the aircraft overflying the Philippines could be a Chinese H-20 stealth bomber, but we have no details suggesting the Chinese have reached a phase of the development of their aircraft that would allow them to fly it in daylight inside enemy airspace.

Dealing with the RQ-180, the existence of a secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and scheduled to be operational with the U.S. Air Force by 2015 was first revealed by Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman in December 2013.

Developed by Northrop Grumman since 2008-2009, the stealthy RQ-180 is designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace, as opposed to the non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk that are intended for “permissive” scenarios.

In their analysis back then, Sweetman and Butler said: “It is similar in size and endurance to the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb. and can stay on station for 24 hr. 1,200 nm from its base. The much smaller RQ-170 is limited to 5-6 hr. of operation. […] The aircraft uses a version of Northrop’s stealthy “cranked-kite” design, as does the X-47B, with a highly swept centerbody and long, slender outer wings. Northrop Grumman engineers publicly claimed (before the launch of the classified program) that the cranked-kite is scalable and adaptable, in contrast to the B-2’s shape, which has an unbroken leading edge. The RQ-180’s centerbody length and volume can be greater relative to the vehicle’s size.”

The RQ-180 is nicknamed the “Great White Bat” or sometimes “Shikaka”, a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Venture 2, AW&ST reported.

A big thank you to Michael Fugit for allowing us to use his photograph and to our reader Marls for the heads up!

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.
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