The U.S. Air Force is preparing to extend the service life of the U-2S Dragon Lady for several more years. Under previous budget plans, the evergreen spyplane was due to be retired in 2019-20, leaving only the unmanned RQ-4B Global Hawk to perform the high-altitude reconnaissance mission. Managers at the Lockheed Martin (LM) Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, are preparing upgrade proposals for the U-2’s sensors and communications fit.
Gen. "Hawk" Carlisle, who retired last week as commander of Air Combat Command, told AIN last November that “we’re trying to find the money” to retain the U-2. Now a senior Air Force official has told the Skunk Works that the 27-strong fleet will be retained until at least the mid-2020s. “There’s a lot more runway in this jet yet,” said Kyle Franklin, the new U-2 program manager for LM. “We could offer a quantum leap in capability,” he told AIN last week.
Two upgrades for the U-2 are already being developed. A Celestial Object Sighting System (COSS, or "star tracker") has been designed by Draper Laboratories as an alternative means of navigation. The U-2 flies daily around the borders of North Korea, which has frequently jammed GPS signals. Raytheon has designed an active clectronically scanned array (AESA) for the U-2’s advanced synthetic aperture radar system (ASARS) that would be redesignated ASARS-2B. Both systems are nearing flight test. The aircraft’s alternative electro-optical imaging system, designated SYERS-2C, has recently been upgraded by UT Aerospace Systems to offer 10-band multispectral capability. The U-2’s legacy SIGINT system has been replaced with the Northrop Grumman Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP).
Meanwhile, flight tests of the U-2 with an Open Mission System (OMS) have continued at Palmdale. Three different defensive systems, an electronic attack payload and several classified payloads have now been integrated. Communications systems that allow the U-2 to act as a gateway between fifth- and fourth-generation combat aircraft have also been tested.
In recent media briefings, officials from Northrop Grumman have contended that the Global Hawk can provide an equivalent capability to the U-2. The Air Force has part-funded integration of the Dragon Lady’s imaging systems on the unmanned jet. But the U-2 airframe offers superior performance. It flies much higher and faster, with a greater payload. All except four jets in the U-2 fleet were built in the 1980s, and have 80 percent structural life remaining. LM officials say that over the past decade, the U-2 has demonstrated an unequalled 95 to 97percent mission success rate. According to their analysis of 2015 USAF data, the U-2S collected twice the imagery of the Global Hawk with the same on-station total times.
Lockheed Martin has proposed replacing the U-2 with a semi-stealthy, long-endurance, high-altitude aircraft designated TR-X. To save on acquisition costs, it would re-use the U-2’s engine and sensors, the latter being housed in twin, wing-mounted pods with interchangeable options, similar to the U-2 today. The Skunk Works has indicated a price of $3.8 billion for 30 TR-X aircraft, but is also offering costed options for enhanced low observability, such as conformal antennas.