In the latest satellite imagery released to the public, dated June 30th (partial) and June 2nd (full), Area 51 continues to undergo changes, and one of them is significant in nature. This new construction project is of especially high interest, not just because of its physical size, but also because of its very peculiar location and timing.
Make sure to also check out part two of this series here.
Area 51 (aka Groom Lake, aka The Ranch, aka Dreamland, aka Watertown Airstrip) and construction go hand-in-hand. The secretive super-base is like the Federal Government’s Winchester Mystery House. Improvements to the base have not stopped since its founding, which occurred the better part of a century ago.
Over the years, the base has expanded from a dry lake bed, an apron, a row of low-slung hangars and some barracks, to a massive complex with a sea of buildings, dozens and dozens of hangars, an intricate radar signature measuring installation, a complex web of taxiways and two massive concrete runways. If it were not situated in the most secluded and heavily guarded locale in America it could be any major US Air Force installation, complete with a baseball diamond and a looming air traffic control tower.
In 2007, the biggest addition in some time was added to the base’s southwest corner, hidden partially behind a giant dirt berm. This fairly massive and modern hangar was fitted-out with extensive office space and a pair of 175 foot doors, one on each side of the structure. The facility was clearly purpose-built for something, and that something, or some things, were not small in size. The width of the doors alone added to the mounting evidence that what was contained within was an asset, or assets, that were strategic in nature.
At the time that this new structure was completed, it was thought to house a proof of concept demonstrator for the Next Generation Bomber (NGB) program and/or a deep penetrating and very stealthy High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) reconnaissance drone, basically an aircraft with similar capabilities as the RQ-4 Global Hawk but much more survivable and even more autonomous.
Since then, the USAF has all but outright admitted that a stealthy and large penetrating unmanned surveillance aircraft exists, and is currently in some form of limited operation. Aviation Week has dubbed this aircraft the “RQ-180” (that is most likely NOT its true designation) in their piece that unofficially ‘unmasked’ an aircraft that many of us already assumed existed.
The bomber test article on the other hand may have actually been data derived from the RQ-180 itself, as it probably shares some similarities with the Next Generation Bomber, especially in regards to its latest generation of wide-spectrum stealth shaping, coatings and some avionics. Alternatively, it could have been a separate machine entirely, one that flew around the turn of the decade. Both the RQ-180 and the bomber demonstrator are thought to have belonged to Northrop Grumman, which is America’s advanced unmanned systems (unclassified at least) and stealth bomber guru.
Rumors were rampant around the 2006-2007 time-frame regarding a “restricted” proof of concept demonstrator contract that was being fought over by various American aerospace manufacturers, one that seemed oriented around a large airframe with a lot of future revenue potential. Northrop Grumman was said to have won this contract, along with at least $2B to build and test the resulting aircraft. This could have been what we now call the RQ-180 or it could have been a Next Generation Bomber technology demonstrator, or it could have been a single aircraft that would perform both tasks. Even though $2B is a lot of money, other funds may have also been applied to the project clandestinely. This would be of no surprise for those who follow clandestine programs, as the USAF’s ‘black budget’ has exploded over the last decade and half, and in 2010 alone it was over $15B.
For reference, the USAF could buy 375 F-16 Block 50s with their yearly black budget alone.
Around 2012, Lockheed was said to have begun retrofitting a previously abandoned stealth penetrator test article at their Palmdale Skunk Works installation. Some rumors stated that this actually happened earlier, right after Northrop Grumman won the previously mentioned $2B contract. This recycling of parts from a cancelled demonstrator would have most likely been a self-funded research and development initiative focused on Next Generation Bomber related technologies. This would make some sense, as whoever won the aforementioned $2B contract (which Northrop Grumman did) would have a leg up on the competition for the actual Next Generation Bomber competition, and whoever won that massive contract would probably own the strategic stealth aircraft market for decades to come. So saying that the stakes were high would be a massive understatement.
Whether or not Lockheed did indeed put such an aircraft into internal testing service is not known, but if the rumors are true, and a previously mothballed Lockheed project was indeed pulled out of storage, adapted, and used as a risk reduction and proof of concept demonstrator in preparation for the final Next Generation Bomber bid, it would mean that possibly two distinct test aircraft exist, and possibly more.
Whatever was developed during that time period, along with a DoD study, succeeded in making their case by about the end of 2010 or so, right around the same time that Defense Secretary Gates abruptly become a Next Generation Bomber believer instead of an ardent opponent of it. During interviews, Secretary Gates alluded to the fact that he had ‘seen some things that changed his mind’ when it came to the validity and potential capability of a new stealth bomber aircraft. He would not elaborate any more than that, leading some to believe that he was referencing the aforementioned activities at Groom Lake.
Fast forward four years and the Next Generation Bomber program, now known as Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program, is clearly funded and underway, and formal but classified requirements for the new super-weapon were officially sent to potentially bidders, team Lockheed-Boeing and team Northrop Grumman, just last month. There is rumored to be a requirement for a flyoff between the two teams, which will be officially announced next Spring, but there is a good chance that a ‘soft’ flyoff of more rudimentary technology demonstrators has already occurred at Area 51. The spotting of three previously unknown flying wing aircraft over Amarillo, Texas, and a single similar unidentified aircraft over Wichita, Kansas, may lend some credence to this theory.
With this background in mind, we now return to the new developments at Area 51. A new engine test cell located towards the northern part of the base appears to have been finalized since the last images were available, and there are some other small improvements that are noticeable around the sprawling installation, but the massive hangar being constructed far south of the aforementioned hangar built in 2007 is quite literally, a big deal.
See this mysterious new structure by clicking here.
The location of this new structure, measuring about 225 feet across, is interesting as it is located right off the end of the runway, far south of the rest of the base. This location would keep it out of the immediate view of the general apron area, and would also allow for quick access to the runway, resulting in minimal taxi times.
The fact that this new hangar will have doors on each side, evidenced by the taxiway emanating out from both sides of the structure, means that pre-flight checks, and possibly engine starts, could be executed while under the structure’s protective cover. This is beneficial when trying to avoid satellite flyovers.
Although the times when flyovers occur are all known, and operations are planned around them accordingly, such planning is no guarantee that the aircraft will not experience problems while taxing, taking off or landing, thus leaving it exposed to prying eyes in low earth orbit. So having a hangar as close to where the aircraft launches and recovers is beneficial if that aircraft is of an especially sensitive nature.
This new hangar could also provide ‘scoot and hide’ support for large test articles, once again to protect them from overflying satellites, although this has never been needed in the past half century of operations at Area 51, so it is a little puzzling as to why it would be needed now. Additionally, adding such a facility to just one end of the base’s long runway system seems strange. If large scoot and hide shelters are a hard requirement, than putting just one at one end of the base makes little sense.
One plausible explanation for this new facility is that this is Lockheed and Boeing’s base of operations for their LRS-B prototype, which would make sense as the hangar built in 2007 is assumed to be a Northrop Grumman facility. Alternatively, this new hangar is large enough to house both competing prototypes as well. Under such circumstances, the early stages of a fly-off, if one is indeed planned, may take place at Area 51 and not Edwards AFB.
This would be a little puzzling considering that when I was last at Edwards AFB, just last March, the whole ‘South Base’ complex, where heavy bombers, the B-2 and the Airborne Laser were housed, is being converted for a massive ‘new program’ that will be coming out of the black fairly soon. Even the B-52s and B-1s that called South Base home for decades have now been moved to the main Edwards ramp in preparation for this new program, which is almost without any doubt the LRS-B. Still, by running the LRS-B competition during the very early flight phases out of Area 51, both teams can be free from media visibility and sensitive issues can be worked out before moving to a much higher profile location like Edwards AFB.
The remoteness of this new installation at Area 51, far south of any other hangars or non-movement area infrastructure, may lend itself to housing something very sensitive in nature, and possibly something having to do with time sensitive strike.
A vehicle that can travel at hypersonic speeds is a possible candidate for this hangar, although I am the last one you would call an ‘Aurora’ chaser. Yet the demand is clearly there (maybe not the dollars though) for an aircraft that can strike anywhere in a hemisphere in a matter of minutes, and such a capability does fit into the Obama’s Administration’s push toward low-intensity ‘drone’ wars where highly focused strikes on targets of opportunity take the place of ‘boots on the ground’ and direct action via manned assets.
Seeing as such a hypersonic requirement is of a quick-strike nature, not of a surveillance one, the development of such a vehicle may finally be relevant. In the past, hypersonic airplanes have been theorized, if not obsessed over, as taking the place of the SR-71 Blackbird, yet the ability for an aircraft to persist for long periods of time near or over enemy territory and propagating sensor data has far surpassed the need for ‘snapshot in time’ reconnaissance, such as what was provided by the retired SR-71 Blackbird and is currently provided by satellites.
Lockheed has hinted at such a capability with their SR-72 concept, and the design keeps showing up in their corporate imagery, so it is possible that fielding even a sub-scale demonstrator of a similar design is in the works. Such an aircraft will utilize an exotic propulsion system and may also leverage a proprietary fuel that is very volatile. Such a situation would also support basing a craft like this in an area far away from other aircraft and sensitive infrastructure.
For decades, there is also what seems to have been an almost constant developmental initiative to field some sort of stealthy short takeoff and landing transport aircraft. Known under a myriad of different program names featuring various stealthy transport requirements, including Special Operations Forces Transport aircraft (SOFTA), and more notoriously as ‘Senior Citizen,’ this clandestine transport initiative was rumored to have produced prototypes that were flown in various configurations over the years. Famous boutique aircraft design and manufacturing firm Scaled Composites is known to have fielded proposals for both Senior Citizen and SOFTA concepts, along with other, more traditional military aircraft manufacturers, including Northrop, McDonnell Douglas, Ling-Temco-Vaught, Lockheed and Boeing.
Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have put forward more contemporary concepts under the ‘Speed Agile’ initiative, all of which are similar but highly unconventional in nature in comparison to traditional transport aircraft. Speed Agile’s goal is to field an aircraft capable of jet speeds and at least C-130 payloads, that is able to get into and out of extremely small landing zones undetected.
The possibility that one of these concepts in moving from theoretical design stage, or even sub-scale demonstrator stage, to a full size prototype is valid, but under the current budgetary restrictions, anything but a small ‘silver bullet force’ would be questionable. That is unless the LRS-B and the Speed Agile programs were merged. The result would be a single low-observable bomber-transport capable of many missions, including possibly aerial refueling. Although some degradation in radar signature and performance would be inherent with combining both concepts into one platform, and unit cost would be adversely effected, something the USAF is petrified of when it comes to the LRS-B.
It would make some sense having a Senior Citizen/Speed Agile like concept being located in its own area and hangar facility at Area 51, as it would give the aircraft room to load and unload tell-tale out-sized cargo more or less out of sight. The secrecy regarding such aircraft would trump reconnaissance and strike platforms as the enemy already assumes those exist, but the DoD has never fielded a stealthy, STOL transport aircraft that can penetrate enemy airspace undetected, at least to the public’s knowledge.
Keeping even a tiny force of these aircraft (which is all we could probably afford) outside the realm of confirmed existence would be logical and we already saw such a precedent with the Stealth Blackhawks used on the Usama Bin Laden raid. Those helicopters are all but confirmed to have been operating out of Area 51 before the raid was executed, and their numbers are said to be very small. There is no reason to believe that a large transport with a similar mission would be treated any differently. The big difference is that a stealth helicopter is much easier to conceal on-base than a giant stealth transport.
Although stealth transports have long been an area of great interest for the DoD, nothing has been confirmed as to their existence, either in the past or in the near future, beyond elaborate wind-tunnel models. On the other hand, we do know that a new bomber is on the immediate horizon, and thus the hangar in question has a higher probability of belonging to it than any other potential project.
The B-2’s wingspan is 172 feet, the LRS-B, or any aircraft we are discussing here for that matter, will have a span smaller than that. When it comes to the LRS-B, its payload requirements are said to be between two thirds and half that of the B-2. Northrop Grumman will most likely base their LRS-B design on the successful ‘cranked-kite’ planform, of which a greatly enlarged X-47C concept has already been floated, while Lockheed-Boeing may produce something a little more elegant looking and similar to Lockheed’s Quartz and Polecat concepts of the past. Regardless of the final configuration, a hangar with a 200 plus foot width should be able to fit whatever design either team goes for, or has already gone for in any case.
Only time will tell what other infrastructure will pop up around this new remote operating facility at Area 51, although one thing is now very certain: Area 51 is in the business of testing highly classified large aircraft as well as smaller ones, and it appears that business is booming.
Photos via Google Earth, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, DoD
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com