Lockheed’s vaunted Skunk Works is setting its sights on developing a successor to its venerable U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drone. This new aircraft will seemingly take the best of the unmanned and manned features of both aircraft, and fuse them into an updated stealthier airframe able to penetrate enemy airspace if need be.
Currently, both the U-2 and the RQ-4 are seen as strategic standoff surveillance platforms that are meant to operate in peacetime or during conflicts while outside the reach of enemy air defense systems. The Skunk Works’ updated design will have low observable features, which will allow it to get much closer to enemy airspace than either the U-2 or the Global Hawk can today, if not penetrate it altogether.
What they are calling the RQ-X/UQ-2 will be optionally manned so that it can leverage the endurance of a HALE drone when need be or the deterrence and flexibility of a piloted platform when the mission demands it. This will make access into and out of foreign airports and dense airspace much more possible than what the strictly unmanned Global Hawk experiences to this day.
Lockheed looks to cut costs on the project by leveraging many components from the U-2 and the RQ-4 programs, including the Dragon Lady’s F-118 engine, its cockpit and both aircraft’s various reconnaissance suites. Altitude of operation will be around 70,000 feet, just where the U-2’s myriad payloads are optimized to operate from today. It could be higher if the U.S. Air Force demands it, albeit such a requirement change may mean a new engine would be required along with tweaks to existing subsystems, which would result in increased expense and development time.
Lockheed has been seriously pondering the idea of converting the U-2 to an unmanned vehicle for some time, while also tweaking its airframe for enhanced performance. Yet what makes this announcement so interesting is that it seems this new U-2 and RQ-4 follow-on will be stealthy in nature, yet utilize so many components purpose built to fit within the confines of the U-2’s unique airframe. This includes multiple ungainly sensors that were never designed to be low-observable or to fit into a low observable craft for that matter.
So what will this new RQ-X/UQ-2 look like? Will it be an exotic flying wing with extreme low observability features, or will Lockheed go with a more conservative and “balanced” low-observable route by building a U-2 configured aircraft with a v-tail, buried inlets, and a flowing carbon fiber body to lower its overall radar cross section?
It seems like the latter, and when paired with advanced jamming technology, this may be enough for such an aircraft to skirt enemy air space and use the U-2’s legacy sensors to peer far into enemy air territory from its elevated perch. Also, we must remember that the Skunk Works has had unique experience with turning an existing airframe, one built using traditional aerospace materials and practices, into a carbon fiber hybrid with minimum amount of of components and increased performance.
This all comes at an interesting time when platforms and their corporate makers are still in a low-intensity battle to take over the U-2’s mission, the U-2 included. After what has seemed like a never ending tug of war between changing USAF priorities and Congressional demands, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is supposed to finally take over the U-2’s mission by 2019. This is well over a decade after the RQ-4 was originally supposed to supplant the U-2 after originally being developed to supplement it.
Over the last few years rumors have swirled of a Northrop Grumman built HALE stealth penetrating surveillance aircraft, unofficially known as the RQ-180, that features the highest degree of low observability available, an aircraft that the USAF itself has all but admitted to existing. Then there also is the Long Range Strike Bomber program that is currently underway, an aircraft that will hopefully be fielded in the 2020s and will have a high degree of information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collecting ability. What all this adds up to is a lot of strategic ISR aircraft, all varying a bit in performance and technological complexity but with overlapping mission sets. This is not a bad thing, but surely the USAF cannot afford all of them in relevant numbers.
When you look at the big picture, Lockheed has come up with a good angle when it comes to possibility retaining its crown as the high-altitude bread and butter reconnaissance provider to the USAF and America’s intelligence agencies. By designing a stealthy “Silent Dragon Lady” if you will, one that is optionally manned and that would need little sensor or subsystem development, it gives the USAF an out from the Global Hawk program over the long-term. It also provides a vehicle that could potentially satisfy Congressional protests and the USAF’s baseline requirements in an economical, low-risk way by using existing U-2 infrastructure and components. In other words, this concept is clearly an attempt at creating a Global Hawk killer.
As for the shadowy RQ-180 which possesses what is certainly a much higher level of survivability than what a stealthy U-2 could ever provide, such a high-end machine will most likely never represent as lucrative of an income stream as what many more decades of U-2 operations could. Moreover, with the Long Range Strike Bomber up for grabs and the F-35 still deep in development, along with other looming and existing big-ticket defense programs in the works, Lockheed has plenty of business on its plate.
If anything else, this UQ-2 could keep Lockheed from losing the market share that it created some 60 years ago with the U-2’s birth and it could give the USAF a stealthy and adaptable high altitude sensor and even one day a laser payload truck that it already familiar with. Still, if this next generation U-2 were to ever be procured in relevant numbers it would almost have to mean that the USAF would have to finally turn its back on the Global Hawk program. That is a tall order after about almost 20 years of continuous development and considering the big drone is finally reaching its potential.
Still, Lockheed’s UQ-2/RQ-X sounds like an incredibly balanced, obtainable and logical solution to a problem that the company clearly wants to continue to solve well into the future.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.