CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr
It looks like a bat, sweeping, turning. But it’s actually the new super-secret Air Force stealth drone.
CNN has learned this unmanned spy plane is designed to fly for up to 24 hours behind enemy lines in countries like North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
Military sources tell CNN it will give the United States a critical stealth advantage to spy on countries that have strong air defense systems able to shoot down more conventional aircraft.
The drone, believed to be called the RQ-180, was first revealed by the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology in a lengthy article co-authored by Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman, both long time experts in classified military stealth technology.
The program is so classified the Air Force would not confirm its existence to CNN or Aviation Week.
But several U.S. officials told CNN its capabilities are a top intelligence gathering priority– especially after a less sophisticated stealth drone went down in Iran in 2012.
The key, Butler said, is the drone’s ability to fly long distance and stay aloft for 24 hours in a stealthy manner.
"This aircraft will be able to penetrate that border and conduct operations in and around an enemy airspace without being targeted," Butler told CNN.
It’s so secret the drone is believed to be at a hangar at Area 51 - the Air Force's highly secure flight test center in Nevada.
The drone may be able to fly as high as 11 miles. The requirement for an asset that is stealthy, can fly at high altitude and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is a crucial priority for the military and the intelligence community.
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In several countries, air defenses have improved significantly in recent years making it difficult if not impossible for U.S. assets to gather information.
The drone’s ability to stay up for 24 hours will also give it a key advantage over satellites which often pass by a target intermittently and are subject to be being detected.
Butler said the shape of the drone means enemy radars can't easily see the drone as heat it throws off is shielded so radars can’t pick it up.
“This aircraft is designed to evade both those thermal sensor, those radar sensors, and other sensors that look for aircraft. So it might not be invisible to radar, but you might not be able to target it and shoot it down.”
Butler suggested the drone may even be able to carry sensors that can listen to cell phone calls and any “activities on enemy frequency, radar activities, that sort of thing.”
Although it’s not confirmed, the magazine suggested the drone could be operating as soon as 2015.