Weeks after unveiling a design for a successor to the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, Lockheed Martin Corp. is touting the benefits of the U.S. Air Force's existing fleet of Dragon Ladies.
In recent weeks, the defense contracting giant floated the idea of having the Air Force hold a competition to develop as many as two dozen replacement aircraft. Lockheed is now calling its design the TR-X (for "tactical reconnaissance") instead of the previous acronyms UQ-2 or RQ-X.
On Monday, it released a video praising the the aging airframe as "superior in design," "indispensable" and "an outlier" for its ability to stay relevant six decades after it was built.
The segment, whose release coincided with the start of the Air and Space Conference sponsored by the Air Force Association, references upgrades to the aircraft, including a cockpit that's 30 percent larger than the original, modern sensors and communications hardware, a new engine in the form of the General Electric F118, weather-penetrating sensors and new avionics with multi-function display.
Why the seemingly two-pronged approach? To be sure, Lockheed still wants to generate buzz within the Air Force to build a next-generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. But it also wants to box out Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, now slated to replace the U-2 when it retires in 2019.
In briefing materials distributed at the conference, Lockheed officials said the U-2 fleet has almost "80 percent" of life remaining on its airframe -- meaning it could fly until around 2045 -- and that the Dragon Lady reflects the "benchmark" in high-altitude ISR. But they also said recent demonstrations involving open mission systems have identified several areas of emerging needs in the mission set.
They include developing secure communication links between the U-2 and fourth- and fifth-generation fighters such as an F-18 and an F-22, a ground control stations and a ground vehicle.
"The design has got to sell itself," Scott Winstead, Lockheed's strategic business manager for the U-2, said afterward, referring to whether the company would pursue the project as an unsolicited proposal. "We're designing to what we see are gaps, working with the Air Force to identify those gaps based off of our road maps, and then we refine that."
He added, "So an unsolicited proposal could go out if we started seeing interest and it started to resonate."
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., of which there are about 20 in the Air Force inventory.