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U.S. Air Force flying new Northrop spy drone -AvWeek

WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is testing a 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 and intelligence officials.

Aviation Week said Northrop won the contract to build the drone, 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 classified budget and would replace the Lockheed SR-71 that was retired in 1998, the magazine reported.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote declined comment on the report, referring queries to the Air Force. Officials at the Air Force and Pentagon also declined comment.

Aviation Week said the new plane carries high-end sensors and surveillance equipment, but could also be used to carry out electronic attack missions.

News about the RQ-180 comes after the Air Force last year sought 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 money for "much higher priorities," but declined to elaborate.

Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha, said the report suggested that Northrop might have a stronger position in the competition for a new long-range strike bomber for the Air Force. Lockheed and Boeing recently announced they would join forces to bid for that program.

"The (RQ-180) program may provide some confidence in Northrop Grumman's aerospace outlook over 2014-18," Callan said in an note to clients. Given the company's export prospects for the Global Hawk, its big role on the Lockheed F-35 fighter jet, and its development of an unmanned plane that can land on aircraft carriers, Northrop "may be able to buck broader Department of Defense budget trends over this time period," he said.

Callan noted, however, that the scale of the spy plane program was likely much smaller than the Air Force's plan to buy a fleet of more than 80 bombers that would be in service for years to come. He said the Air Force could build eight to 12 RQ-180s at a price of around $100 million each.

The RQ-180, reported to be similar in size to the Global Hawk, will help the Air Force as it moves toward operations in "denied airspace" instead of the more permissive environments over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Publicly available overhead imagery shows new shelters and hangars sized for an aircraft with a wing span of more than 130 feet 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.