Lockheed’s initiative to create an optionally-manned alternative to the U-2 Dragon Lady and RQ-4 Global Hawk has taken a “tactical” turn. Skunk Works has morphed its philosophy into what appears to be an unmanned stealthy aircraft dubbed the Tactical Reconnaissance-X.

Our friends over at Flightglobal.com spoke with Lockheed’s U-2 program manager Scott Winstead about where he described the logic behind this new design philosophy:

“TR for tactical reconnaissance, and that’s really what we’re driving here: a tactical reconnaissance platform. It’s designed to be a cheaper platform, so you’re not going to get into the exquisite stuff unless that’s something that you need to do. If it’s something that’s going to be a workhorse with the latest in technology and platform design, you’re more talking tactical reconnaissance rather than strategic reconnaissance.”

So basically this is far from a “and the kitchen sink” design, but more of a practical one that balances capabilities and survivability versus cost. Either way it has one advantage — it will be more stealthy than either the U-2 or the Global Hawk are today — allowing it to get closer to the things it reconnoiters.

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At this time it appears that this design would not be optionally manned like the previous “UQ-2” concept, although this could change. Lockheed thinks 25 to 30 aircraft are needed to address the Air Force’s needs, whi is less than the nearly 40 aircraft combined Dragon Lady and Global Hawk force today.

Like the UQ-2 concept before it, this new design aims at using the U-2’s current F-118 engine and payloads, and will have an “open architecture” systems design that will allow it lug new missions suites in the future with minimal integration issues. These could include laser, jamming and exotic communications capabilities.

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With this in mind, and after studying the sweet spot when it comes to the length of the majority of missions the RQ-4 and U-2 embark on today, the TR-X will have an endurance of about 20 hours or so. That’s less than the Global Hawk’s nearly day-and-a-half flying ability and more than double the Dragon Lady’s endurance.

Lockheed’s design seems extremely well tailored to fit within an information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture not just of today, but of the future. This is clearly a middle of the road workhorse design that won’t have it’s low observable airframe impede on its ability to be affordable. Offering the same abilities of the U-2 and many of those of the RQ-4, while also adding the low observable element.

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Maybe what is most fascinating about the TR-X concept isn’t what it directly tells us but what we can infer about the existing ISR ecosystem developing within the Air Force. The TR-X goes out of its way not to be a very-stealthy, long-endurance, high-flying penetrating reconnaissance platform. This is something that is already rumored to exist, at least in very low numbers, in the black world, dubbed unofficially as the RQ-180. It is supposedly a Northrop Grumman product.

Then there is the famed RQ-170 Sentinel, a Skunk Works product, which is a much smaller tactical penetrating reconnaissance aircraft optimized for medium altitude and medium endurance missions. There is also the new Long Range Strike Bomber which will service ISR missions as well, and has very high-end penetrating stealth capabilities and medium altitude performance with medium to long-range. There are other lower-end assets such as the MQ-9 Reaper, MC-12W Liberty and others on the low end, and the standoff ISR assets like the RQ-135 Rivet Joint and EP-3 Aeries on the high end.

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What is missing is something in between that can get the bread-and-butter U-2 and RQ-4 work done at an affordable cost but is more survivable than what we have today in that role today.

The question is will the USAF see the advantages of a new platform, albeit one that uses many of the U-2’s proven components, enticing enough to take on the risk of developing it. If development sputters, something the design is clearly trying to avoid, by the next decade the USAF could end up with an embarrassing trio of aircraft meant to the do the same thing, or at least the Global Hawk in addition to a teething TR-X.

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It will come down to Lockheed ability to sell just how low-risk their design is and how it will justify walking away from the Global Hawk’s already sunk costs.

Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.