In the tit-for-tat battle between US Air Force high-altitude surveillance platforms, Lockheed Martin plans to upgrade the U-2S a new capability that will not be easily matched by its designated unmanned successor.

The Dragon Net upgrade planned for the U-2S fleet will equip the fleet with a beyond-line-of-sight communications relay capability for forward-deployed forces on the ground or in the air.

The U-2S already uses a Dragon Fly modem that allow a soldier on the ground to relay full-motion video to another soldier miles away. That roughly matches the capability of the RQ-4 Block 20’s battlefield airborne communications node.

A new upgrade, however, is planned in the next few months that will install a L-3 Communication satellite modem, allowing the same forces on the ground to call up imagery and other information from intelligence databases, such as the distributed common ground system.

The upgrade adds nothing to the U-2S fleet’s suite of intelligence-gathering sensors, but it fits into Lockheed’s broader strategy for proving the manned aircraft’s relevance against the U-2’s unmanned usurper.

Scott Winstead, a senior business development director, notes that RQ-4 is being equipped now to carry the U-2’s main optical sensor – the Goodrich SYERS-2 and the upgraded version with a gimbaled scanning feature known as the MS-177. But using such a optical sensor on the RQ-4 means removing the radar sensor for that mission, he says.

Lockheed is aiming to offer the same capability for the U-2S fleet with communication relay.

“It allows you to become much more interoperable, allows you to start merging weapon systems,” says Winstead, a former USAF RQ-4 and U-2 commander. “That’s what the U-2 does today, whereas the Global Hawk has three different variants.”

Lockheed’s ultimate plan is to replace the RQ-4 and the U-2 with a still-secret, stealthy and unmanned design called the TR-X.