The U.S. Air Force's use of unmanned aerial drones is typically regarded as one of the more futuristic ways in which the Pentagon goes about its business in the 21st century. But as a recent article in Wired suggests, the era of the combat drone has only just begun. According to reports, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are secretly working on new stealth drones — an advanced piece of military technology that's being developed in anticipation of high-tech warfare over the Pacific.

Indeed, as David Axe notes, the U.S.'s multi-billion-dollar drone fleet may have helped against the insurgents of Iraq and Afghanistan. "But in a fight against a real military like China's, the relatively defenseless unmanned aerial vehicles would get shot down in a second," he writes. Hence the need for something a bit more... invisible.

In fact, it makes sense for UAV development for the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan era to favor "black" programs. As America's wars become more high-tech and its foes more heavily armed, the Air Force will need truly cutting-edge drones - the robot equivalents of the Cold War F-117 and B-2 stealth warplanes, both of which were designed and initially produced in total secrecy in order to protect their pricey new technologies.

In a recent article for Aviation Week, reporter Sweetman laid out the evidence for no fewer than two new, jet-powered, radar-evading Air Force UAVs still cloaked in black funding. In 2008 Northrop Grumman, maker of the B-2 stealth bomber, scored a $2-billion Pentagon contract that the company took pains to keep off the books. At the same time, Northrop hired as a consultant John Cashen, the man most responsible for devising the B-2′s radar-defeating shape.

The funding and Cashen's expertise were applied to a secret effort to build a larger successor to the Lockheed Martin-made Sentinel, according to Sweetman. The new drone "is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake," a.k.a. Area 51, Sweetman wrote.

Axe also speculates that the stealth drone could be used to fly ahead of the Air Force's new bomber; it could jam enemy radars and spot targets for the larger, manned plane.