A Lockheed U-2S in flight.
A pilot guides a U-2 Dragon Lady across the air field in front of deployed E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft April 24 2010, en route to a mission in support of operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility from a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia.
The USAF planned to retire its entire U-2 fleet by 2019 and upgrade its Global Hawks to match the capability of the venerable Dragon Lady’s sensors. Northrop Grumman in February 2016 flew the first demonstration of a Universal Payload Adapter, a 17-point system on the belly of a Global Hawk that permitted the remotely operated aircraft to carry multiple sensors, such as the Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System. Later in the year 2016, the U-2’s Optical Bar Camera and an MS-177 multispectral sensor flew on the Global Hawk.
Now a 60-year program, the U-2 had evolved since its first flight in 1955 as an A model. In the late 1960s, Lockheed redesigned the U-2 and went through production with the U-2R designation. The 12 R models produced 40 percent larger than the 1950s U-2A and U-2C models carried a modular payload, and a larger cockpit was accommodating a pilot’s full pressure suit.
In the 1980s, the TR-1 that was structurally identical to the U-2R went into production. The TR-1 included provisions for more developed sensors. With the stand-up of Air Combat Command, all U-2s updated to a common configuration and designated U-2R.
When outfit with a new GE F118 engine and power generation, the U-2Rs received a U-2S designation.
The U-2 remained in front-line service more than 50 years after its first flight with the current U-2. In the mid-1990s, the U-2R converted to the U-2S, receiving the GE F118 turbofan engine due to its ability to direct flights to objectives at short notice, something surveillance satellites could not do.
The U-2 outlasted its Mach 3 A-12 replacement, retired in 1968, and the SR-71 replacement retired in 1998. On December 2005, the Pentagon approved a classified budget document calling for the U-2s termination no earlier than 2012, with some aircraft retiring by 2007. In January 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced the U-2s pending retirement as a cost-cutting measure during a larger reorganization and redefinition of the USAF’s mission. Rumsfeld said this would not impair the USAF’s ability to gather intelligence, which satellites and a growing supply of unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft would do.
In 2009, the USAF stated it planned to extend the U-2 retirement from 2012 until 2014 or later to allow more time to field the RQ-4. In 2010, the RQ-170 Sentinel replaced the U-2s operating from Osan Air Base, South Korea. Upgrades late in the War in Afghanistan gave the U-2 greater reconnaissance and threat-detection capability. By early 2010, U-2s from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron had flown over 200 missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and the Combine Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa.
A U-2 station in Cyprus in March 2011 helped in the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, and a U-2 station at Osan Air Base in South Korea provided imagery of the Japanese nuclear reactor damage from the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
In May 2014, U-2 faced accusations of causing an air traffic disruption in the Western US because of an apparent ERAM software glitch. The USAF stated the U-2 did not cause the problem as it did not emit any electronic signals capable of scrambling the control center’s computers. The FAA later determined the caused a flight plan entry error overwhelming the air traffic system’s memory capacity.
From March 2011 until 2015, the US Air Force project operated a fleet of 32 U-2s. However, in 2014, Lockheed Martin determined the U-2S fleet having used only one-fifth of its design service life, and it remained one of the youngest fleets within the USAF.
In 2011, the USAF stated its intent to replace the U-2 with the RQ-4 before the fiscal year 2015. The proposed legislation required any replacement to have lower operating costs.
In January 2012, the USAF announced plans to end the RQ-4 Block 30 program and extended the U-2s service life until 2023. The US Air Force changed its planned and kept the RQ-4 Block 30 in service because of political pressure despite its objections. The US Air Force argued the U-2 costs $2,380 per flight hour compared to the RQ-4’s $6,710 as of early 2014. Critics point out the RQ-4’s cameras and sensors having less capability, and lacking all-weather operations capability even with some of the U-2’s sensors installed on the RQ-4. A decrease in the RQ-4’s per flying hour costs and it’s matching the U-2’s capabilities motivate it replaced the U-2s by FY 2016.
The US Air Force calculated the U-2s retirement would save $2.2 billion. It proposed spending $1.77 billion over ten years to enhance the RQ-4, including $500 million on a universal payload adapter to attach U-2 sensors onto the RQ-4. USAF officials feared it was retiring the U-2 amid RQ-4 upgrades creating a capability gap. The US Air Force proposed using other high-altitude ISR platform to substitute for the U-2 and RQ-4 during the interim. The US Air Force proposal included using satellites and the secretive RQ-170 and RQ-180 UAVs. The House Arms Services Committee’s markup of the FY 2015 budget included language prohibiting the use of funds to retire or store the U-2; it requested a report outlining the transition capabilities from the U-2 to the RQ-4 Block 30 considering capability gap concerns.
In late 2014, Lockheed Martin proposed an unmanned U-2 version with greater payload capability. However, the concept did not gain traction with the USAF. In early 2015, the USAF received a directive to restart modest funding for the U-2 for operations and research, development, and procurement through to FY 2018. The former head of the USAF Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Hostage help extended the U-2S to ensure commanders received sufficient intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage. He states, “It would take eight years before the RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet could support 90% of the coverage of the U-2 fleet.” Although the US Air Force intended for the RQ-4 to replace the U-2 by 2019, Lockheed claims it could remain viable until 2050.
On 23 May 2017, it became official that the U-2 was not retiring. The US Air Force Fiscal Year 2018 funded both the Global Hawk and the U-2 to meet the demand for ISR.I funded the upgrade to the ASARS-2B radar and the stellar tracking initiative, the star tracker that provides an alternative means of navigation in case of GPS jamming. Also funded is the enhancements to the optics and focal planes of the SYERS-2C imaging sensor; the SIGINT system; and the defensive electronic warfare system. There’s even some funding for a “technical refresh” of the good old wet-film Optical Bar Camera (OBC).
There’s more money to continue development and testing of the U-2’s ability to act as an airborne communications node. These include the ubiquitous Link 16, the F-22’s InFlight Data Link (IFDL) and the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL).
Also in the works: upgrades to the pilot helmet and pressure suit, a new look at the ejection system, and the installation of a flight data recorder.
It goes to show that you can’t keep a Good Lady down!