WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is testinga new unmanned spy plane developed by Northrop Grumman Corp that could be ready for military missions by 2015,Aviation Week magazine reported on Friday, citing defense andintelligence officials.
Aviation Week said Northrop won the contract to build thedrone, the RQ-180, after a competition that included Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, maker of the smaller,less stealthy RQ-170 spy plane, one of which went down in Iran.
The RQ-180 was funded through the Air Force's classifiedbudget and would replace the Lockheed SR-71 that was retired in1998, the magazine reported.
Northrop spokesman Randy Belote declined comment on thereport, referring queries to the Air Force. Officials at the AirForce and Pentagon also declined comment.
Aviation Week said the new plane carries high-end sensorsand surveillance equipment, but could also be used to carry outelectronic attack missions.
News about the RQ-180 comes after the Air Force last yearsought to halt funding for Northrop's high-altitude,non-stealthy Global Hawk plane despite resistance from Congress.Air Force officials told lawmakers they wanted to use the moneyfor "much higher priorities," but declined to elaborate.
Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha, said the reportsuggested that Northrop might have a stronger position in thecompetition for a new long-range strike bomber for the AirForce. Lockheed and Boeing recently announced they would joinforces to bid for that program.
"The (RQ-180) program may provide some confidence inNorthrop Grumman's aerospace outlook over 2014-18," Callan saidin an note to clients. Given the company's export prospects forthe Global Hawk, its big role on the Lockheed F-35 fighter jet,and its development of an unmanned plane that can land onaircraft carriers, Northrop "may be able to buck broaderDepartment of Defense budget trends over this time period," hesaid.
Callan noted, however, that the scale of the spy planeprogram was likely much smaller than the Air Force's plan to buya fleet of more than 80 bombers that would be in service foryears to come. He said the Air Force could build eight to 12RQ-180s at a price of around $100 million each.
The RQ-180, reported to be similar in size to the GlobalHawk, will help the Air Force as it moves toward operations in"denied airspace" instead of the more permissive environmentsover Iraq and Afghanistan.
Publicly available overhead imagery shows new shelters andhangars sized for an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130feet at Northrop's Palmdale, California, plant and at Area 51,the Air Force's secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nevada,Aviation Week reported.
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