The venerable U-2 'Dragon Lady' is a spy plane born from Cold War necessity that soldiered on operationally for decades past anyone's wildest dreams. She went from sleek design to a bulging beast of burden whose silhouette can change as fast as her mission requires it to. Here's a guide to her many configurations.
The U-2 was designed in the 1950's by Kelly Johnson — a man that would become as famous in aeronautical circles as the aircraft he gave birth to — and his skunkworks team. Stories of white knuckle Cold War missions over the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the shooting down of Gary Powers in 1960, an event that proved that the time of surface to air missiles have finally arrived, are synonymous with the U-2. This machine has taken part in virtually every major American military operation for over the last half century and has provided signals, communications, electronic and image intelligence reliably since shortly after the dawn of the jet age. The U-2 has also proven itself to be a great atmospheric research platform, natural disaster life saver, cartographer and high flying testbed beyond its more celebrated spying duties.
With all these missions in mind, the U-2 can appear like an almost totally different aircraft depending on which unique mission it is configured for, and there is no better place to view the U-2 in its many guises than the home of its manufacturer, Lockheed Skunk Works, now located at the sprawling and shadowy Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. Plant 42 is basically a massive airport surrounded by sprawling hangar facilities where America's top aircraft manufacturers and clandestine design houses create cutting edge flying super weapons.
What happens behind the doors of these massive buildings is deeply classified, but some weapon systems do fly out in the open from the Plant 42, especially those that are unclassified and are going through critical upgrades, servicing or manufacturer testing. The U-2 is one of these machines. America's best aerospace engineers and subsystem developers are constantly tweaking the Dragon Lady's abilities to meet new mission requirements.
An aviation photographer friend of mind who lives in the area has captured the U-2 in some of its most outlandish configurations and is willing to share these fascinating pictures with Foxtrot Alpha's readers. So let's take a look at this legendary aircraft in all her different configurations, and maybe I can shine some light onto what exactly all these various pods, antennas and nosecones actually do.
The aircraft pictured above is a very rare, totally "clean" U-2S. In fact she is not even packing the weight of her normal matte black paint (that is rumored to have radar absorbing qualities). Flying the U-2S, with its powerful F-118 motor, in this absolutely stripped configuration must be a real thrill. Its huge wings, high thrust and almost no payload should combine to produce some pretty outstanding climb rates. On the other hand, I bet she is a bitch to land as those long wings do not want to stop flying even when there is the normal payload of thousands upon thousands of pounds of sensors and fuel onboard, not to mention the parasitic drag from a ton tacked on pods and antennas.
Once again, here we have a totally clean Dragon Lady, albeit a trainer model known as the TU-2S. The stepped cockpits provide both the pilot in training and instructor as good of visibility as possible, a key feature when attempting to land the notoriously squirrely U-2.
Here we have a similarly configured TU-2S but painted in the U-2's signature flat black with red tail markings scheme. The "BB" on the tail code denotes that this aircraft is stationed at the U-2 fleet's master-base, Beale Air Force Base, in northern California.
This is a standard U-2S with "super-pods" attached underneath its wings. Super-pods are used for carrying many types of surveillance equipment, including various data-links, although they can also be totally empty. When in use, which in this picture they do not appear to be, they usually house the"Senior Glass" communications, signals, and electronic intelligence packages (COMINT, SIGINT and ELINT). This system began as three separate installations, known as Senior Sear, Senior Ruby and Senior Glass, but after a mid 1990's initiative to integrate all these systems together in a modular configuration they can now fly and work together to some degree. These three forms of intelligence gathering capability intercept, and in some cases geo-locate, both communications, such a radio calls, signals such as encrypted data streams, and enemy radar emissions. Together, they are used to build a "picture" of the electronic battlefield, to be exploited in either near-real time via data-linking the data to a ground station, or collected data can be stored for analysis once the aircraft returns to base.
Obviously having the ability to listen to your enemy's radio transmissions and data streams gives you a huge leg up on defeating them on the battlefield, as does knowing the location of their enemy's surface to air missile sites and air defense connectivity nodes. By "sniffing out" the enemy's radar emissions, especially over time via utilizing the U-2s long endurance, commanders can employ air power in a way that maximizes their assets' ability to survive and provides essential targeting and mission planning information for fighter and attack aircraft, as well as standoff missiles such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (T-LAM).
This data is especially crucial for stealth aircraft, as they would be some of the first air vehicles to enter enemy air space during the opening stages of hostilities, and their survival depends on careful mission planning, which directly leverages the ELINT information collected by the U-2 and other assets. The idea is to only expose a stealthy aircraft's most reflective aspects to certain radars for the minimum amount of time possible. This is called "flying the blue line" in low observable (stealth) communities as this "best course for survivability" is shown as a blue line in mission planning software and on in-cockpit displays. Using modern data-link technology and satellite communications, "pop-up" threats, such as mobile SAM sites, that are detected from a U-2 orbiting just outside enemy territory can even be sent via data-link to aircraft over enemy airspace so that they can avoid, suppress or destroy these threats in near real time.
Here we have the same U-2S that appeared in the last image, although in this image it is configured with a full Senior Glass installation, including the Senior Spear COMINT installation on the right super-pod, along with a massive antenna farm on the aircraft's belly, as well as the Senior Ruby electronic intelligence (radar emission) collection system on the left wing super-pod. U-2s equipped with this extensive ventral antenna farm have also been rumored to be capable of networking relay functions, providing over the horizon connectivity to aircraft and ground units within the U-2s area of operations. The two bulges on the bottom of the aircraft, one below the intakes and one behind the tail wheel, are the aircraft's within line of sight data link antennas used for transferring the data collected by the aircraft's sensors down to ground stations and ground data entry points in near real time.
This U-2, once again the same aircraft as the one above, is configuration in a similar fashion as the last image with one major difference, it packs the ASARS-2 (Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System) in its elongated nose cone. ASARS-2 consists of a pair of advanced electronically scanned array sideways-looking radar antennas mounted on each side of the U-2s elongated nose. This system takes high-fidelity radar "imagery" of the battleground out to about 100 miles on either side of the aircraft's position. Seeing as the U-2 often operates just outside of an enemy's borders, being able to fly an orbit in either direction while collecting radar data is key.
The ASARS-2 can see through bad weather and smoke, something that optical cameras have trouble with, and it can also work in ground moving target indicator (GMTI) mode. This mode basically identifies vehicles, and even large troop formations, moving within ASAR's range of detection via recognizing the "doppler effect" created by the moving objects against static ground clutter. Such data can be quickly exploited by commanders via the setting up of ambushes or by directing air power to destroy the enemy ground formations with prejudice. In a sense, ASARS-2 offers a similar, albeit less powerful ground tracking capability as the USAF's 707 based E-8 J-STARS.
Now we have a notably different U-2S configuration, once again on the same aircraft. The nose seen in this picture is also elongated but it does not have the cooling scoop as seen on the ASARS equipped U-2. Instead, this nosecone houses the SYERS (Senior Year Electro Optical Reconnaissance System). This camera system, the U-2's primary optical sensor, can peer deep into enemy territory and possesses outstanding resolution. Upgrades to the sensor itself, leveraging breakthroughs in multi-spectral imaging, has vastly improved SYERS ability to see through smoke, light fog and transient weather. Additionally, it sees "more" than ever before as the camera is actually capable of operating in multiple bands of the optical spectrum. For instance, maybe a vehicle is concealed by camouflage netting and it is all but non existent when photographed using traditional optics. SYERS, with its additional infra-red capability, may pick up the heat signature from the vehicle's engine, effectively countering the enemy's attempt at concealing it. In addition to SYERS, in this configuration the U-2S is carrying panoramic cameras in its "Q Bay" below and behind the cockpit. These cameras can take high definition horizon to horizon images of anywhere the U-2 passes over or passes abreast of.
There has been a concerted effort by the U-2 community to be able to lug around the SYERS and the ASARS-2 at the same time. Apparently a small fleet of U-2s are equipped with this capability and feature a massive bulge around the forward fuselage, behind the cockpit where the "Q-Bay" would be. The only photo that I have ever seen of this is of low quality and was published by the USAF. It is posted below.
The huge radome on top of this Dragon Lady's spine is a satellite communications system known as either Senior Span or Senior Spur, depending on how the jet is configured. Senior Span is fitted to provide the conveyance of signals intelligence collection data beyond line of sight and around the globe. Senior Spur is used for transmitting other forms of data, including image intelligence and electronic intelligence gathered by the U-2's sensors. In its latest configuration, Senior Spur may also be able to transmit data over the horizon via Ku-band satellite that is being produced remotely from another source other than the U-2's sensors. In this function the aircraft would be working as a battlefield relay surrogate for other forces.
The U-2's amazing ability to be reconfigured at will, and the aircraft's proven reliability, is really what makes the long winged jet such a great value for the USAF, and why the RQ-4B Global Hawk, an aircraft that was supposed to replace the U-2 many years ago, has had trouble doing so until recently. As you can see in the picture above, this U-2 is configured with ASARS in its nose, and Senior Spur/Span satellite link on its spine, and a full Senior Glass installation in its wing pods and on its belly. That is a lot of intelligence gathering and transmitting capability for one aircraft! Seeing as the new shadowy configuration that allows ASARS and SYERS to be carried at the same time, along with a Senior Spur dorsal pod on its spine, depending on payload, power and cooling limitations, it may be possible for the U-2S to carry Senior Glass as well. Such a configuration would pretty much span the whole gamut of airborne strategic reconnaissance.
Beyond these primary sensors, the U-2S carries a plethora of additional sensors and communications devices that can be switched in and out at will. These include a myriad of line-of sight data links, capable of unloading the U-2S's sensor data in near real time to ground stations or ground data entry points. Then there are air sampling payloads, great for sniffing around for very deadly elements floating near or above the battlefield. There is also the U-2S's advanced threat warning and electronic warfare suite, one of the most advanced of its kind, that is used to detect and jam enemy radars and missiles that are within threatening range of the aircraft.
Additional upgrades to the U-2 fleet have resulted in an aircraft that has never been more capable or easier to operate. Enhanced power generation, a cockpit that is now semi-pressurized and all glass cockpit displays are amongst the long list of Dragon Lady improvements that have occurred over the last twenty years. Sadly, even though the fleet has never been more capable, the DoD is finally wanting to retire the U-2 in exchange for the Global Hawk.
What the Global Hawk lacks in sensor capability in some respects, it makes up for in endurance, almost 30 hours to be more exact. Considering so much of the U-2s mission now demands a loitering flight profile, the persistant nature of the $40,000,000 Global Hawk (almost $120,000,000 when including research and development costs) does have its clear advantages. Still, the U-2 fleet and its dedicated pilot cadre and maintainers are a resource that would be hard to get back once they are disbanded, so this decision does have some fairly heavy strategic consequences.
The U-2 works, and works well. The Global Hawk works, but at a higher cost per flight hour than the U-2 and lower availability rate, although these metric are beginning to improve. Additionally, the RQ-4B lacks in some areas of sensor capability when compared to its older, manned grandfather. If the DoD gets its wish, and Congress approves the dissolution of the USAF's U-2 program, it will be interesting to see how such a decision will be considered in retrospect. Something tells me that retiring the U-2 fleet in full is less than ideal idea at this point, but other "black project" forces could have had some influence on it.
There are rumors that a high-flying, enemy territory penetrating, stealthy unmanned system, that can survive directly over the battlefield while collecting data for hours on end has been in operational testing for some time. This is a capability that I have predicted should be in existence for years now and one that would go far in augmenting the Global Hawk should the U-2 fleet be castoff. With any luck this system will be the U-2's true replacement, as the original design was envisioned to complete this exact role, a deep penetrating, un-touchable sensor platform for monitoring our enemies up close and at will.
Although less capable smaller scale systems are known to exist, and a penetrating stealth surveillance aircraft was tested decades ago, this capability paired with the more conventional Global Hawk's standoff reconnaissance role, may be good enough to finally see the venerable Dragon Lady disappear form USAF flight-lines once and for all.
Don't get that upset just yet, the U-2 will not disappear from the skies forever if the USAF get's its way! NASA operates a pair of U-2s, known as "ER-2s," for the high altitude airborne sciences role. These craft utilize the U-2s amazing high-altitude, long endurance capability, as well as the aircraft's multitude of sensor bays and pods to accomplish a variety of data collection missions and experiments.
In the past, the ER-2 has been used for direct atmospheric sampling missions, many of which study effects of ozone depletion and global warming. Additionally, ER-2s have flown over and mapped major hurricanes and other storms using advanced radar, lidar, interferometer, and radiometer payloads, in an effort to better understand how these extreme forms of weather form and evolve over time. Like the USAF's U-2, NASA's Dragon Lady's can carry a dorsal satellite communications link system to send back its data in real time when it is operating outside of line of sight of a ground station. Also, these aircraft can fly high enough to simulate a satellite in orbit for a variety of experimental proof-of-concept applications, including those for hyper-spectral imaging and forest fire detection capabilities. Often times, these sensors will fly on the ER-2 first before being reconfigured into a satellite and launched into orbit.
Although NASA's U-2s are not necessarily vintage hand-me downs from the USAF, they have not received some of the same upgrades that their cousins in uniform have. For instance, the ER-2s do not have the much improved glass cockpit that the USAF has fielded throughout the U-2S fleet. The aircraft is still flown via "steam gauges," an archaic reality considering a better option is readily available, it just costs money. Should the USAF divest itself of the U-2 fleet in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk, of which NASA also has an early pre-production pair on hand, then the ER-2 force stands for a major upgrade and will be flush with spare parts for decades to come.
Just like the USAF's U-2s, NASA's Dragon Ladies are truly multi-role platforms that offer a comparatively fantastic return on investment for NASA. If it has to fly high and be at a certain place at a certain time, there is a good chance that the U-2 will be NASA's platform of choice to make that happen.
Photo Credit: Pilot in cockpit and U-2S night shot: USAF. Airfield Imagery: Goodrich Aerospace. A huge thanks to Jim Mumaw for sharing all his U-2 Palmdale shots with us!