Flying High

Feb. 1, 2012

The U-2 Dragon Lady first flew in 1955 and was tasked with some of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence-gathering missions almost from Day 1. A series of successful flights directly over the Soviet Union ended when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down 52 years ago. U-2 surveillance flights spotted Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba half a century back. And the aircraft is still a one-of-a-kind asset, regularly called on to fly near—or over—sensitive targets from the Pacific Rim to the Middle East and South Asia.

A U-2 flies over Beale AFB, Calif. For the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, many aspects of pilot training for the U-2 and Global Hawk have been merged. (Photo by Sagar Pathak)

It is because of this enduring value that the Air Force’s latest high-altitude intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance strategy keeps the venerable U-2 flying until at least 2015. USAF is also evaluating whether a mix of U-2s and unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft should keep flying for years afterward.

“Both platforms have their advantages, and extending the [U-2 retirement date] to 2015 gives us an opportunity to evaluate the Block 30 version of the Global Hawk in terms of capability, sensor availability, and cost of operations until then,” Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, said in a December interview. Force mixture options would include, “at the extremes, all of one of them and none of the other”—or some combination of the two airframes.

“In general, the U-2 is still a highly valued platform,” Schwartz added. “We’ll see it through to 2015 … and then take a look at what the right mix should be.”

The Chief’s comments harkened to the Air Force’s previous high-altitude ISR scheme, in which the RQ-4 was regarded as a complement to the U-2. Facing severe budget pressure, the service eventually decided to retire the U-2 once the Global Hawk was able to perform the same types of intelligence collection. But years later, as the Dragon Lady continues to add specialized new, developmental, and one-off capabilities, the Air Force is still pondering when to phase out the U-2 in favor of the Global Hawk. (In the Fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, Congress asked USAF to maintain the U-2 beyond 2016.)

Despite the aircraft’s reputation as a Cold War airplane, the current inventory is thoroughly modern. The fleet has all-new digital glass cockpits, state-of-the-art sensors and communications links, and other upgrades. Studies carried out by Air Force Materiel Command and Lockheed Martin have indicated the airplane could remain flightworthy for at least another 15 years. Of USAF’s 32 existing U-2s, most were built in the 1980s.

Not too long ago, USAF had planned to retire the entire U-2 fleet no later than 2012, with the new Global Hawk waiting in the wings to take its place. Just two years ago, the service devised a new plan that would have kept the U-2 in service until 2014. Now, attempting to predict the U-2’s final retirement date would seem to be little more than speculation.

Lockheed Martin performs programmed depot maintenance on the U-2 at a company facility in Palmdale, Calif., as the Air Force does not have an organic capability to conduct the work. For the past three years, the Air Force has put three to four U-2s through PDM per year—a decrease from five to seven aircraft in previous years. The decrease was made in preparation for retirement, and Lockheed Martin officials have previously warned ramping back up would be costly.

A Global Hawk in flight. Air Force officials say the RQ-4 unmanned aircraft is the U-2’s successor, and USAF has no plans for further manned high-altitude ISR aircraft after the U-2 is retired. (Northrop Grumman photo)

However, the Air Force signed a contract with Lockheed Martin in October 2011 to ramp up the U-2’s PDM rate to five aircraft for Fiscal 2012. Overall, an individual U-2 is expected to go through PDM around once every six years.

Long Lead Phaseout

Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for ISR, said, “The U-2s are flying at a very high optempo, and we have to make sure that they’re in good shape to do everything they’re being asked to do today.” The high operational tempo is a result of the insatiable hunger for ISR on the battlefield, and that is the primary justification for the ramp-up in PDM arranged for this year.

James said even though the U-2s are slated for retirement, “they have to be able to complete their missions.”

Asked whether Lockheed Martin officials have proposed fleet upgrades to the Air Force, a company spokeswoman said Lockheed’s representatives “go to the Air Force at times with a great opportunity.” She declined to comment on what kinds of improvements were suggested.

According to senior service officials, the aircraft have recently received a new suite of defensive electronic upgrades and a cockpit modification that improves pressurization while airborne.

“This is not sensor capability or endurance [aid], but it lessens the physiological effects on the pilot,” said Schwartz, noting that “improving the pressurization will minimize the likelihood of high-altitude flight effects.”

He added, “In addition to what the Intelligence Community values about the aircraft, we have to be concerned with the human capital.”

An Air Combat Command spokeswoman said that a fleet upgrade to the U-2’s Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance Sensors (SYERS) to the 2A configuration was nearly complete as of December 2011. The Air Force is awaiting delivery of one final SYERS-2A package. This upgrade adds extra multispectral imaging capability to the system, according to Michael Don, Goodrich’s director for strategic surveillance programs. Multispectral sensors capture images at specific frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum; this can be used to detect changes not visible to the human eye. The images can be used for targeting and threat analysis.

A U-2 is seen in a gray camouflage pattern in 1975. This U-2 tested equipment to locate enemy SAMs. (USAF photo)

According to Don, SYERS-2A collects imagery in seven wavelength bands simultaneously. This imagery can be transmitted to a ground system and viewed in real time by analysts, who combine the separate spectral bands in different combinations in order to highlight the characteristics of various objects.

In addition to SYERS, the U-2 carries a 30-inch optical bar camera and a 24-inch IRIS camera, offering high resolution and panoramic imaging sensors, as well as the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-2) that provides an all-weather radar imaging capability.

Unmanned Successor

Still, Air Force ISR officials insist the RQ-4 Global Hawk’s rise to completely replace the U-2 is inevitable. “Global Hawk is doing well and responding effectively to various scenarios,” said James, the ISR chief. Despite the ever-shifting switch-over date, the RQ-4 remains the U-2’s successor, and USAF has no plans for further manned high-altitude ISR aircraft after the U-2.

The RQ-4 has not been on the sidelines. Last year, for example, the Global Hawk flew in support of humanitarian missions following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and performed targeting missions over Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn. The Air Force used the RQ-4 to track moving targets for the first time in combat over Libya, according to Bill Walker, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 business development manager. Walker said the Global Hawk achieved this capability by employing the moving target indicator (MTI) mode of its synthetic aperture radar. Having tracked moving targets, the aircraft was then able to employ its electro-optical/infrared sensor to “take an electro-optical image of the target and verify the identity,” Walker added.

The vehicle in question was a Block 30 Global Hawk stationed at NAS Sigonella, Sicily.

Despite heavy use of Global Hawks over Afghanistan, the SAR’s MTI mode has not been employed there to date, Walker said last September. In Afghanistan, the threats tend to be “more static,” he said.

A Global Hawk races down the runway at a base in Southwest Asia. This photo was taken from a chase car as an RQ-4 pilot directed the aircraft during takeoff. (USAF photo by SSgt. Andy M. Kin)

Last August, USAF declared the Block 30 Global Hawk had reached initial operational capability. Specifically, the Air Force now has sufficient Block 30 assets and infrastructure in place to support one continuous 30-day orbit. At the end of 2011, there were nine platforms deployed at forward operating locations.

But while the Global Hawk has achieved operational successes, its development program remains difficult. On June 14, 2011, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief implemented a management shake-up of the Global Hawk effort following program cost growth that breached a legislative cap early in the year. Ashton B. Carter, then undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, put forth a plan aimed at increasing transparency. It restructured Global Hawk into four “subprograms”: Global Hawk Baseline, which includes the Block 10 and 20 aircraft; the Block 30 aircraft; the Block 40 aircraft; and the ground segment, communications equipment, and training systems.

Tumultuous Acquisition Program

In April, the Air Force had notified Congress that the average unit cost of the RQ-4 had risen by more than 25 percent, triggering a Nunn-McCurdy breach. The statute requires the Department of Defense to certify the program as essential to national security in order to avoid termination. This marked the second time the program had breached the cost-growth cap.

Carter certified the program was indeed essential to national security and that there were no adequate substitutes available at a lower cost. He concluded a restructure was needed to better monitor costs. He also stated his intention to reduce the planned Block 30 fleet from 42 to 31 aircraft.

The Air Force said the primary driver of the year’s reported cost increase was the Fiscal 2012 budget decision to decrease overall procurement from 77 to 66 aircraft. (The Block 30 reduction further cut the fleet size to 55 airframes.) However, according to Pentagon analysis cited by Carter in a letter to Congress, “the primary root cause of the unit cost breach … is due to having … unfunded requirements in the baseline and the deferral of development activities.” Other factors included “additional requirements for sparing, support equipment and changes in the mix of aircraft purchased” and an unrealistic schedule “based upon the continued underestimation of the differences between RQ-4A and RQ-4B” and their payloads.

A U-2 passes two AWACS aircraft on a ramp in Southwest Asia. The Dragon Lady’s retirement has been repeatedly extended because of its unique capabilities and Global Hawk growing pains. (USAF photo by MSgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

Despite the tumult in the acquisition program, USAF leaders said they were finally satisfied Global Hawk was meeting affordability guidelines—a little more than a year after officials first criticized both government and industry program managers for allowing costs to burgeon.

Northrop Grumman officials have said their “biggest focus” for the RQ-4 program is now affordability. The company has more than 100 cost-saving initiatives in place, according to George Guerra, vice president for the company’s High-Altitude Long-Endurance Systems business.

Guerra noted that the company is co-hosting several “affordability” conferences with USAF and the US Navy, whose Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program is leveraging many lessons from Global Hawk. “We are looking at some of the initiatives in the sustainment period that might translate to fewer spares and less repairs.”

According to Edward Walby, director of business development for Northrop’s Global Hawk program, creating best practices in usage procedures can often cut down on wear and tear of the system. “Similar to [knowing], in your home, whether you should turn the television on first and then your satellite system, there are certain procedures that can prevent problems,” he explained.

Guerra pointed out that Beale AFB, Calif., received its first two Block 30M RQ-4s late last year. This configuration carries the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload sensor, which detects, identifies, and locates radar and other types of electronic communication signals.

“Today, imagery is collected based on request,” he explained. “With signals equipment, we can pull out targets that may not be known. This adds a whole new dimension to ISR collection.”

The U-2 and the RQ-4, designed for the same mission, have many similarities. They both fly at very high altitudes and carry multiple sophisticated sensors. But each also has capabilities lacking in the other.

A Block 40 RQ-4B on delivery from Edwards AFB, Calif., to Grand Forks AFB, N.D., home of the 69th Reconnaissance Group. The Global Hawk can stay aloft for 30 hours, but in some ways is still playing catch-up to the U-2. (Northrop Grumman photo)

For example, the U-2 can stay airborne for 12 hours at a time at altitudes of around 70,000 feet. The U-2’s great limitation is the endurance of the pilot. During the Cold War, typical missions lasted approximately nine hours and were carefully scripted. More recently, though, missions have grown longer, with more than 11 hours becoming fairly commonplace due to the need for more “dynamic taskings,” the term for additional target taskings given to the pilot midflight.

Finding the Right Mix

The Global Hawk, conversely, can provide persistent, “staring” overwatch. It can cruise at about 60,000 feet and remain airborne for up to 30 hours. However, the RQ-4’s optical field of view is quite a bit narrower than the U-2’s.

Northrop Grumman is also on contract with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for an experimental effort to conduct autonomous aerial refueling with RQ-4s. Company officials say such a program could further extend Global Hawk’s endurance.

Air Force officials note the RQ-4 will never be everything the U-2 is, and vice versa. But at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, many aspects of pilot training for the RQ-4 and U-2 have been merged. Students attend core classes together before continuing to platform-specific coursework. The Air Force has realized some savings from the collaboration, officials say, and the Navy is also partnering on training and sustainment efforts in order to cut down on overhead.

James emphasized that “there will always be a need for both” manned and unmanned ISR aircraft. “We just need to find the right mix for the future.”

According to Schwartz, “The advantage of the U-2 is that it has very good sensor capabilities, among other things, while the advantage of the Global Hawk is that it has endurance.”

Both platforms bring “something unique to the high-altitude ISR mission,” Schwartz said. “The question is how do we manage the cost of that capability, and what is the best mix of manned and remotely piloted?”

Marina Malenic is the US aviation reporter for Jane’s. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Missile Warning for the Future,” in the October 2010 issue.