The US Air Force is testing a new unmanned spy plane, RQ-180, which is expected to be ready for military missions by 2015, according to Aviation Week.

The spy plane, which is developed by Northrop Grumman, was funded through the air force’s classified budget and will replace the Lockheed SR-71 that had retired in 1998, reports the news agency citing defense and intelligence officials.

According to Aviation Week, Northrop has secured the contract to build the drone, after a competition that comprised Boeing and Lockheed Martin, maker of the smaller RQ-170 spy plane.

"The new plane is designed to carry high-end sensors and surveillance equipment, and electronic attack missions."

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote has declined to comment on the report, referring queries to the air force.

The new plane is designed to carry high-end sensors and surveillance equipment, and electronic attack missions, according to Aviation Week.

Capital Alpha analyst Byron Callan was quoted by Reutersas saying that the report suggested that Northrop might have a stronger position in the competition for a new long-range strike bomber for the air force.

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"The (RQ-180) programme may provide some confidence in Northrop Grumman’s aerospace outlook over 2014 – 2018," Callan said.

According to Callan, the air force is planning to build eight to 12 RQ-180s at a price of around $100m each.

The RQ-180, which is expected to help the air force to deploy operations in denied airspace instead of permissive environments over Iraq and Afghanistan, is reported to be similar in size to the Global Hawk.

The new shelters and hangars sized for an aircraft with a wing span of around 130ft have been reportedly set up at Northrop’s Palmdale, California plant and at Area 51, the air force’s secure flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nevada.

Defence Technology