The Global Hawk vs Dragon Lady debate never ends in Washington. Each aircraft has its own positive and negative qualities and keeping both would be ideal. The problem is that sequestration makes ideal no longer an fiscal option. As a result, Lockheed is now coming to the table with an offer that may be a decade or two over due- to produce a optionally manned Dragon Lady.

Under Lockheed's plan, a new center-fuselage barrel section would be installed on existing U-2s, adding space behind the cockpit, but leaving the rest of the aircraft untouched. In this new section, a series of powerful actuators would take over in absence of pilot control inputs. Meanwhile, the U-2s upgraded glass cockpit would remain intact, allowing for a pilot to fly the aircraft manually simply by disabling the actuator system. In other words, the U-2's analogue 'pulley and push-rod' flight control system would remain intact even for unmanned flight, with commands being processed through a digital autopilot, which are then physically implemented via the mechanical actuators.

According to Aviation Week, landing, which is notoriously challenging for pilots who fly the U-2, would be accomplished by hand or by using an automatic landing system tied to the autopilot and actuators. This system could be engaged with a pilot in the aircraft as well as when recovering the jet from unmanned missions.

A Lockheed official told Aviation Week:

"As a prior U-2 pilot, I always thought this was going to be an aviation challenge. When I looked to our avionics engineers, they almost scoffed at me. . . They said, 'We've already done it—landing [an unmanned aircraft] on a pitching and rolling carrier,' . . . and this is far easier. This would be more safe, the reason being the failure modes... Even if you are a pilot in the airplane and you have a full nose-up or a full nose-down trim failure, you can engage the autopilot and let it fly all the way down to the landing... The actuators would handle those loads easily."

In addition to housing the actuators that would run the U-2's flight controls, the new composite center barrel section would be attached to the U-2's metal wings at about ten feet out from the fuselage. This would increase the U-2s wing area and span, and it could allow for more fuel to be carried for longer duration unmanned flights.

This longer center section plug would also allow the U-2 to carry yet another sensor, this one being a full motion video system. This capability has become a staple of lighter unmanned tactical systems, such as the Predator, Reaper and Shadow, and can be used for live over-watch of special operations or for following vehicles and watching patterns of life. This new payload bay may even potentially be used to carry a version of Wide Area Aerial Surveillance, which from 70k feet could cover a dizzying amount of terrain.

Lockheed says that the redesigned optionally manned U-2 concept will cost less than upgrading and continuing with the strictly unmanned Global Hawk program. At a price tag of $700M, the USAF would get three optionally manned U-2s and two ground control stations. Then, once this initial investment is made and the development for the modification is done, each aircraft modified thereafter would cost an estimated $35-40M each. The U-2 fleet has many decades left of usable airframe life, so the age of the aircraft to be modified, the last being built in the late 1980s, is not a factor.

The optionally manned U-2 concept is so logical that it is very puzzling that we have not seen a bigger push for it over the last two decades. Yet even as attractive as an optionally manned Dragon Lady may sound, the purpose built, unmanned Global Hawk has big support in Congress. Meanwhile, the USAF, with its ever changing list of priorities, has tried to mothball a large portion of its long-endurance, unmanned Global Hawk fleet in favor of the more reliable, heavier payload lugging, air traffic friendly, higher flying and less expensive to operate U-2.

In the end, Lockheed's Dragon Lady turned high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) optionally manned drone concept is incredibly enticing and relatively simple in complexity, it is just a shame that we are only seeing a push for it now. The fact that the Global Hawk and the Navy's Trident programs represent more than the sum of their capabilities complicates the U-2 vs Global Hawk debate even more. Viewed as a giant research and development program alone, one that has blazed the way for autonomous unmanned systems, the Global Hawk has benefits far beyond those that are strategically or tactically tangible in the near term.

With all this in mind, even though the concept is intriguing and incredibly logical, I think Lockheed may be just a little too late to party with their smartest and most cunning Dragon Lady yet.

Photos via USAF, Lockheed, Public Domain

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address