LOCKHEED Martin Skunk Works is studying an unmanned variant of the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which it believes could meet various US Air Force requirements.

The firm outlined its concept in an unsolicited proposal to the USAF in March. The U-2U variant would augment the manned U-2S for very-long-duration, high-risk, missions.

The U-2U would be fitted with an advanced full-authority digital engine-control system, digital ßight-control system, and redundant servo-actuators. The proposal is to fit the flight-management system developed originally for the Lockheed Martin/Boeing Darkstar low-observable unmanned air vehicle (UAV). Missions would be pre-planned and flown autonomously, although they would be continuously monitored by a ground station. The U-2U design would also allow manned flights.

Under the scheme, two U-2S would be modified to U-2U configuration for flight testing. New production aircraft would also be needed. Lockheed Martin says that the prototype could be flying within 28 months of go-ahead.

The development cost was pegged at $85 million, and each U-2U would cost $35 million to build, including engines and avionics, after a one-time aircraft-production restart cost of $15 million. The cost estimate does not include sensors. The initial ground station would cost around $15 million.

Lockheed Martin officials argue that, "-given the current maturity of UAVs, there are many unresolved reliability issues. UAVs experience high loss rates when compared to manned systems."

"A mixed fleet of U-2S and U-2U aircraft offers the lowest cost option across the operational tasking spectrum," they add. Company officials also believe that political and safety constraints associated with UAVs are mitigated by a mixed U-2 fleet.

The proposal is under review by the USAF.

Source: Flight International