Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is looking to write the next chapter in the history of the U-2 Dragon Lady after 60 years of continual global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
Today’s U-2 aircraft – most manufactured in 1980s – are about 20% of the way through their planned 75,000h airframe life, but are being retired in 2019 at the insistence of the US Air Force, which says it cannot afford to operate both the manned U-2 and its unmanned alternative, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
The two aircraft, originally meant as complementary surveillance assets, have for years threatened each other’s existence, and the air force has tried many times to put one or the other out to pasture.
The U-2 spy plane is famous for its overflights of Russia and China during the Cold War, but the high-flying aircraft designed by Kelly Johnson in the 1950s is busier now than at any point in its history.
The specialised surveillance fleet – headquartered at Beale AFB in northern California – has stepped up its operations from forward bases around the globe in support of everything from traditional treaty verification and mapping missions to snooping on terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa, as well as on more sophisticated rivals such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
But as the U-2 faces retirement, Skunk Works is proposing a next-generation reconnaissance aircraft, one optimised for the same 70,000ft flights but more stealthy than its predecessor.
Skunk Works engineers in Palmdale, California, are considering an evolutionary design, which company officials say could outmatch the best proposals from industry heavyweights Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
Lockheed is still lobbying hard to keep its famed U-2 in service, contending that relatively recent upgrades and the low stress of high-altitude flight (on the airframe at least) makes the U-2 a viable platform out to 2045.
However, it says if the programme must end, then the air force should hold a competition for a replacement, since the mission requirement has not gone away.
Company officials disclosed details of Lockheed’s optionally manned “RQ-X” or “UQ-2” concept during an 18 August media tour of its U-2 maintenance facility in Palmdale.
“We’re looking at a Global Hawk and U-2 – taking the best of breed from both worlds, mixing them together onto one platform,” says Lockheed’s U-2 strategic development manager Scott Winstead. “Think of a low-observable U-2. You’re not going to make it invisible, but LO characteristics would make it more difficult for them to shoot you down: the materials, shape, design and other stuff.”
The current U-2S fleet – consisting of 27 mission aircraft and five twin-seat trainers – received new General Electric F118 engines in the 1990s, and Winstead thinks the F118, which also powers the Northrop B-2 bomber, is the prime candidate for the successor.
The new aircraft would carry many of the same sensors, since they are already calibrated to 70,000ft.
U-2 programme director Melani Austin says with solid requirements, Skunk Works could get to work designing and building the next iteration of the U-2 relatively quickly and at a reasonable cost.
She points to the development of the original U-2A for the US Central Intelligence Agency, which was produced in less than a year and under budget, with 15% of the development cost being returned to the government.
“If we replicate that environment today and have a really clear set of requirements that don’t change, it would really help any company gets to the end of the development phase quickly and cost effectively,” says Austin. “Clear requirements make a very straightforward design.”
Winstead says Lockheed is pursuing RQ-X in the traditional Skunk Works way.
“If we see anything the air force is interested in anywhere, we start working on it,” he says. “Any time you see a jump in the technology or a change in the roadmaps, Skunk Works is right there shifting with it.”
Talk of a next-generation U-2 design comes 60 years after the first flight of the U-2A in August 1955.
Lockheed will likely take some notes from those six decades as it designed the RQ-X, since this will not be the first time the company has attempted to design a stealthy U-2.
The U-2 was spotted by Soviet radar on its first overflight, leading to Project Rainbow – an attempt by the CIA to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross-section using a specialised radar-absorbent coating and “trapeze” wires on the leading and trailing edges of the airframe to deflect electromagnetic energy.
The performance trade-off was reduced range and altitude, but worse – the absorber material also acted as an insulant, sometimes causing the original Pratt & Whitney J57 engine to stall, contributing to the death of one pilot. Project Rainbow was cancelled in 1958.
Lockheed could also pull lessons from its more recent RQ-3 DarkStar programme, which was its attempt in the late 1990s to create a stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle. It is now a fine museum piece.
These days, Skunk Works has far more ways of cloaking a high-altitude flyer, including new stealth coatings.
Winstead says the physics of flying at 70,000ft drive certain design principles, such as high-aspect-ratio wings rather than the stealthy flying wing design epitomised by the low-observable B-2.
The RQ-X will be “survivable, but not unnoticeable”, says Winstead, who notes that the U-2 is often used for political signalling. “Something you can see when you want to see it.”
The driving force behind the optionally piloted design is twofold: relying solely on unmanned aircraft for intelligence gathering makes America vulnerable since control links can be disrupted, and it is easier to match the capability of the U-2 with a pilot in the loop.
“When they come up with an airplane that is better than the U-2, if it doesn’t have a pilot in it, that’s fine with me,” says Lockheed U-2 test pilot Greg Nelson. “If it’s better than the U-2, I’ll support it and I don’t care who makes it. If it’s a more capable platform, bring it on.”
Nelson says the Global Hawk is not capable enough to carry the mission solely. Plus, an adversary is less likely to shoot down a manned surveillance aircraft than a UAV because the political consequences are far greater, which is why optionally manned is preferred.
While actively pursuing RQ-X, Lockheed also recognises the air force has no stated requirement or time line for the development of a next-generation high altitude long endurance platform.
“There is a roadmap, but no timeframe,” says Winstead. “[But] when you’re looking at big dollars going toward upgrading old platforms, at what point do you go: why don’t we compete this mission and let everybody compete for it? You end up with something that’s even better.”
The air force, though, has no appetite for starting new aircraft programmes, since the automatic US government spending cap known as sequestration is still the law, and priority projects like the Lockheed F-35, Boeing KC-46, T-X and Long-Range Strike Bomber are consuming most of its development and procurement funding.
The air force tells Flightglobal that it remains committed to the current plan of upgrading the Global Hawk and retiring the U-2 in 2019 and is not considering a recapitalisation programme.
“The air force views the U-2 and RQ-4 as complementary systems and acknowledges the Combatant Command-demand for more ISR; however the current fiscal environment does not allow the air force to maintain both platforms,” a service spokeswoman said in a 20 August email.
“The air force is pleased that many of these industry partners are looking toward the future to find innovative solutions that cross multiple domains. However, the air force has just completed the modernisation plan for the RQ-4 to ensure a continuing, optimised capability and [we] are not prepared to discuss follow-on airframes or retirements at this time.”
The statement points to the service’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Vector as its roadmap for future persistent surveillance aircraft, which calls for a more capable, penetrating platform than perhaps is being considered by Skunk Works in RQ-X.
“Next-Generation RPA must detect, avoid and/or counter all anticipated threats – operating from contested to denied airspace in all weather, maintaining persistent ISR in the target area,” the spokeswoman says.
Just last month, the air force signed a co-operative research agreement with Northrop to trial the company’s universal payload adaptor, which supposedly will allow the RQ-4 Block 30 to carry many of the modular sensors currently flown on the U-2, such as the SYERS-2C multispectral imaging sensor and the wet-film Optical Bar Camera.
USAF secretary Deborah Lee James has approved a “prudent actions list” for the U-2 that includes an improved Raytheon Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-2B) radar and L-3 Communications “Gen-3” radio, despite its pending retirement. Those capabilities would keep the aircraft at peak capability through 2019, if funded by Congress.