Farnborough Air Show

But What About The Dragon Lady?

 - July 9, 2012, 2:50 PM
A U-2S equipped with the nose-mounted ASARS-2 radar sensor and a SIGINT system in the wing pods, both supplied by Raytheon.

Absent from Lockheed Martin’s IS&GS Dragon line-up is the most famous LM product to carry that name. True, the U-2 Dragon Lady is the responsibility of a different LM division–Aeronautics–but with the evergreen spyplane about to enjoy a new lease on life, it seems strange that LM has done little to promote what is arguably the most capable multi-intelligence aircraft ever built.

All through this year’s controversy in Washington over the Pentagon’s decision to keep the U-2 and ground its replacement, the Global Hawk Block 30 UAV, LM has kept a low profile. Northrop Grumman has deployed copious media and lobbying resources to try and reverse the move. But the case for the U-2 has been left to a dedicated group of ISR-savvy airmen and officials in the Pentagon, supported by some specialist contractors–and the combatant commanders who enjoy an everyday feed of valuable imagery and signals intelligence from the high-flying platform.

LM Aeronautics has valuable contracts for all U-2 depot maintenance and considerable field support. The company also stands to gain substantial revenue from engineering the various upgrades to the Dragon Lady that are now in prospect. So do the providers of sensors and communications systems to the aircraft, especially Goodrich, L-3 Com and Raytheon. Over the next five years, the Air Force is planning an annual spend of $50 million on U-2 upgrades and another $15 million on research and development.

Goodrich ISR makes the U-2’s Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance Systems (SYERS), a multispectral imaging system. Its coverage will be extended from six to ten wavebands, and a new gimballed version designated MS177 will migrate this unique capability from the aircraft’s nose to one of the wing pods. This will allow the U-2 to simultaneously carry the Raytheon Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System 2 (ASARS-2), which is also nose-mounted. This high-resolution sensor could also be upgraded to an ASARS-3 version with an active array.

The wing pods currently carry only the U-2’s SIGINT system, either the older RAS-1R system supplied by Raytheon, or the newer Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) from Northrop Grumman. Additional ASIP systems that were to be procured for the Global Hawk Block 30 will now be carried by the U-2 instead.

Another sensor might also be carried in the U-2’s wing pods. L-3 Wescam has proposed that its turret-mounted high-specification 474 EO/IR full motion video system be added to the Dragon Lady.

Significant improvements to the U-2’s data links, electronic warfare system and airframe are also in prospect. These include a reduction in the cockpit altitude from 29,000 feet to 15,000 feet. This initiative is already funded and is expected to reduce or eliminate the risk to pilots of decompression sickness (DCS).