Area 51 drone development expanding?



Less than four years ago, the U.S. government finally acknowledged the existence of Area 51, the notorious military installation in the Nevada desert long associated with unidentified flying objects. It may be that documents mentioning the facility were declassified due to a lack of plausible deniability, given Area 51’s high profile in pop culture. Now, however, new evidence is emerging that the admission may have also been aimed at downplaying the base’s significance in the news cycle, as construction and contracts at the facility point to its ongoing and expanding use.

Located at a site called Groom Lake in the Mojave Desert northwest of Las Vegas, Area 51, also known as “Paradise Ranch” or simply “The Ranch,” according to official documents, has long been the subject of intense speculation.

National Security Archive / George Washington University

Now that its very existence is no longer a state secret, the official story is that the UFOs that have famously been associated with the base for decades were not extraterrestrial spacecraft, but rather various kinds of top secret man-made military aircraft undergoing testing. (Although UFO sightings documented by the Air Force’s Project Bluebook and related programs were by no means limited to the Nevada desert, nor were they all easily explainable, as I’ve noted elsewhere).

Today, however, there is a whole new set of unexplained mysteries surrounding whatever is going on at Area 51. According to The War Zone, a Time Inc. publication, Area 51 has not only been building new hangars, but a Maryland company was recently awarded a $3.6 billion contract, apparently for drone-related testing at the facility. The base has also reportedly been pressuring its neighbors to sell adjacent land as it expands.

The War Zone‘s Joseph Trevithick notes that the Pentagon first announced that URS Federal Services, Inc. had been awarded the contract “with award fee and award term portions for remotely piloted aircraft services.” Trevithick’s article was later updated, however, with a “correction” from the Air Force. The contract announcement, the Air Force claimed, “had the wrong contract type and statement of work.” The actual statement of work, it claimed, “is range support services and not remotely piloted aircraft services as stated in the announcement.”

The rest of the announcement, however, which the Air Force reaffirmed as being accurate, notes that the contract work is to be carried out “at Nevada Test and Training Range, Nevada; Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; and Tonopah Test Range Airfield, Nevada, and is expected to be complete by March 31, 2034.” All three of these sites are part of a much larger, sprawling complex of bases in the Nevada desert, of which Area 51 itself, located just south of the dry bed of Groom Lake, is actually just a small part.

area 51 map
Finlay McWalter / Wikimedia Commons

It is known that Area 51 (and the surrounding bases) have been used for drone development and testing in the past. As the Air Force retired the Lockheed F-117 stealth jet program in 2008, “Tonopah became home to Lockheed’s secretive RQ-170 Sentinel,” Trevithick writes. “The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron had at approximately 20 of the bat-wing unmanned spy planes sitting at the desert airport until 2011. Then it moved to the Air Force’s main drone hub at Creech Air Force Base and set up a separate detachment at Vandenberg Air Force Base in neighboring California.”

“It is very possible that some sort of Sentinel operations still occur at Tonopah as well, but clearly it is the USAF’s chosen home for secretive aircraft that have moved from the developmental stages to an early operational one. Eventually, once the programs are declassified, the programs move to a more convenient home. In the F-117’s case, that was Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. For the RQ-170, it’s Creech and Vandenberg.”

The Central Intelligence Agency reportedly tested its earliest drones at Area 51 in the 1960s, and the RQ-180, successor to the aforementioned RQ-170, is also thought to have been tested at the base in recent years. Given the facility’s long history with unmanned aircraft, it is perhaps surprising to learn that civilian hobby drones were only specifically banned from flying near Area 51 last year.

“It may turn out that the Air Force moved the bulk of the RQ-170s out of Tonopah to make room for another top secret, joint drone program. We have seen official details and other hints about various secretive Air Force aircraft projects since the Sentinels came into the light,” Trevithick writes.

“In December 2013, veteran Aviation Week reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler reported the existence of another flying-wing stealth drone, dubbed the RQ-180. Six months later, Air Force Lieutenant General Robert Otto, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, made the unprecedented move to acknowledge the program publicly during a speech sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. It took the service three years to cop to the existence of the Sentinel on the record.”

Trevithick notes that the newly awarded $3.6 billion contract is for a project spanning a full 17 years, which works out to more than $200 million annually. “While there are just too many unknowns to be sure,” he writes, “given the history of the locations, the money involved, the time frame, and what we already know about separate developments, this contract suggests the Air Force is up to something big out in Nevada.”

Whatever the military is planning, it’s clear that the limited release of official information on old projects has not marked the end of sensitive activities at Area 51 and the surrounding bases. For all we know, drone testing could be a cover story for the real purpose of the $3.6 billion contract, which will actually pay for alien autopsies. Considering some of the things the government has done and then tried to cover up, after all, would it really be so surprising?



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