Six decades after it unveiled the U-2 Dragon Lady, Lockheed Martin Corp. is pitching a replacement spy plane called the UQ-2 or RQ-X.
The world's largest defense contractor recently discussed the idea with reporters at its Skunk Works advanced projects facility in Palmdale, California, which birthed not only the U-2, but also the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft, F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack plane and the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet.
The so-called UQ-2 or RQ-X, as the design is known within the company, would still carry many of the same sensors as the U-2, utilize the same F118 engine and fly at 70,000 feet, but it would feature a new low-observable body and have more endurance, according to an article by James Drew, a reporter for Flight Global.
"Think of a low-observable U-2," says Scott Winstead, Lockheed's U-2 strategic development manager, told the publication. "It's pretty much where the U-2 is today, but add a low-observable body and more endurance."
Dana Carroll, a spokeswoman for the company, provided more details in an email to Military.com.
"Today's U-2 can carry more payload, flies faster and flies higher (70,000+ feet) than any other ISR platform, all of which influence target area coverage, deep-look across borders and quality of data," she said. "These performance factors result in a lower cost per target than any other high-altitude ISR platform.
"However, with the U-2 set to retire in 2019, our operational analysis shows a need in the future for a high-altitude, deep-look, long-range, long-endurance, stealthy platform with the ability to rapidly adapt to new systems and protect against advanced technology threats," Carroll added. "There isn't currently a platform that will meet this criteria set, although today's operating complementary platforms come the closest.
"We envision incorporating the best-in-breed capabilities from today's ISR platforms," she said. "As a clean-sheet concept, our next-gen ISR platform differs from today's U-2 in that it is stealthier, optionally-manned; and has more power and a longer wingspan. The next-gen platform's range, survivability and endurance increase dramatically. The optionally-manned concept is in the trade space of the design as is the increased engine power."
The hardest part for the company may not be developing the technology, but convincing Air Force officials and lawmakers of the need for it.
The Air Force plans to retire its fleet of more than 30 U-2s to save an estimated $2 billion over a decade. In its place, it plans to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone made by Northrop Grumman Corp.
Lockheed has successfully convinced U.S. officials to delay the planned retirement of the U-2 -- a plane that has already outlasted the SR-71, another once meant to replace it.
Indeed, military leaders have praised the unmatched performance of the Dragon Ladies even while trying to retire them. Last year, for example, top Air Force officials acknowledged that the proposed drone replacement for the U-2 was still years away -- and only then with key sensors and cameras cannibalized from the aircraft.
When asked why the Air Force couldn't get new cameras for the Global Hawk Block 30 drones, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said, "it would be cost prohibitive," according to an article by my colleague Richard Sisk. Spencer didn't give cost estimates, but said the solution was to "unbolt the sensor on the U-2 and bolt it onto the Block 30."
A month later, Army Gen. Curtis "Mike" Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, told lawmakers that the U-2 gives better early warning of a potential attack from North Korea than the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aerial vehicle. "In my particular case, the U-2 provides a unique capability that the Global Hawk presently does not provide," he said, according to another article by Sisk.
Yet even if Lockheed is able to convince military officials of the need for a new high-altitude, long-endurance airplane, it would have to do the same with lawmakers who can't agree on a way to roll back automatic spending caps that threaten the defense budget.
Carroll pointed out that Congress in 2012 said the U-2 couldn't retire until a comparable platform exists -- and that improving the performance of the Global Hawk to the level of the U-2 may cost between $2 billion to $4 billion.
"With an ISR gap in our future, the question naturally becomes, why spend resources to upgrade a platform to a good-enough standard when today's complementary platforms, in their current forms, accomplish today's mission?" she said. "With increasingly tight funding, why not spend those resources to address the future ISR gap and develop a platform better than both of today's platforms combined?
"The U-2 delivers unparalleled performance and capability today, and can operate beyond 2045 without any major upgrades," she added. "We see a need to continue to operate today's mixed fleet of complementary systems until a next-gen ISR platform is available."
This story was updated with quotes from a Lockheed spokeswoman beginning in the fifth paragraph.