Wanted: An ISR showdown

The case for a spy plane to replace U-2s, Global Hawks

Sometimes when a stalemate lingers, one of the frustrated combatants demands closure with a head-to-head competition. And so it is when it comes to U.S. high-altitude ISR, short for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In hopes of ending the questions over the futures of the conventionally piloted U-2s and unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawks, Lockheed Martin earlier this year released a rendering of a proposed unmanned spy plane called the TR-X, which it has been working on at its Skunk Works unit in California since 2015.

Lockheed doesn’t expect the Pentagon and Air Force to simply sign onto the TR-X proposal. The intent is to jar the U.S. acquisition system into squeezing development of a new high-altitude ISR plane into a crowded spending program of new bombers, air tankers and fighter planes, not immediately but within several years.

Specifically, Lockheed Martin wants the government to hold a competition to choose a successor to the Global Hawks and the U-2s. Lockheed Martin says it could build 30 TR-Xs for $3.8 billion by 2030 and it says this expenditure would make more sense than spending billions to maintain and improve the Global Hawks and improve their sensors to match the U-2s, which is the Air Force’s current plan. Lockheed Martin has tailored its pitch to address the weaknesses it perceives in the Global Hawks, built by rival Northrop Grumman. By going unmanned like the Global Hawks, Lockheed Martin also plans to beat its own U-2s on endurance.

“It’s a coherent path to get beyond the U-2 Global Hawk fight into a future platform,” Lockheed Martin’s J. Scott Winstead told reporters earlier this year. “We think we’ve got the best design because we’re Skunks,” he said, using a nickname for workers at the company’s Skunk Works unit in Palmdale.

At stake is the ISR future of two aerospace giants, not to mention an answer to the long standing question of whether conventionally piloted planes or drone aircraft are best for delivering high-altitude eavesdropping data and imagery to commanders and intelligence analysts.

The Global Hawks got off to a difficult start when the Pentagon decided to transition the effort from a demonstration project into a manufacturing program without going through the normal requirements vetting and establishment process. Deliveries were late and budgets escalated. Intelligence professionals bemoaned the quality of the Global Hawk sensors compared to U-2s, and the Air Force barred them from flying in icing conditions.

Even so, it’s unclear whether Lockheed Martin’s pitch to apply Global Hawk funds toward a new aircraft will gain traction. The Air Force lauds the ability of the Global Hawks to stay up for longer than a day and appears committed to the upgrade plan.

Lockheed Martin provided a briefing on the TR-X proposal on the Hill, but a Senate staffer was unaware of any discussions or presentations of the idea by the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

“It sounds very interesting, but usually there needs to be some sort of interest in the [Department of Defense]. We’re not that good at creating programs here,” the staffer says.

The Air Force is remaining publicly neutral about the idea of an ISR competition and whether the TR-X has merit.

“The Air Force is always studying emerging technologies in concert with our industry partners and assessing what capabilities and operational effects will be required for future ops,” the Air Force said in a statement in response to my questions about high altitude ISR.

As for the RQ-4 Global Hawks, the Air Force said it is “committed” to maintaining them as “the High-Altitude ISR Program of Record” through a modification program called the High-Altitude ISR Transition Plan, which it says will “ensure the viability of the program for the future.”

The Air Force has made clear that it had to make a choice between continuing to fly the U-2s beyond 2019 or flying the RQ-4 Global Hawks.

“While both the U-2 and RQ-4 provide valuable high-altitude intelligence,” the statement said, “fiscal constraints have necessitated the AF to dedicate resources to the sustainment of one program of record.”

Northrop Grumman declined to discuss the potential for a new ISR plane.

The standoff

The U-2 fleet has a rich history, from monitoring Soviet missile sites during the Cold War to watching North Korea and mapping Afghanistan during the U.S. and allied occupation. Those and other operations have earned the U-2s many admirers among the Air Force brass and the intelligence community. Congress weighed in by passing a law in 2006 forbidding the Air Force from retiring any U-2s unless the secretary of defense certifies that the spy plane’s ISR capabilities are no longer needed.

Winstead, a former U-2 pilot, said that when he started flying the airplane as an Air Force officer in 1995, he was informed that the spy plane was a “sunset” aircraft destined for retirement. The U-2 retirement date has been set repeatedly and pushed back. The U-2s retirement date remains 2019, but some Pentagon watchers predict that the date will be extended yet again.

“Quite honestly, what’s keeping us around is the capability and the fact that our [combatant commanders] are enjoying a higher capacity of ISR than they’ve ever received before, and that’s resonating with Congress,” Winstead said in the briefing to reporters.

The Global Hawk’s edge is that it can stay aloft for about 36 hours; the U-2 can stay up for about 16 hours, but in practice about 10 hours, limited by the human pilot’s endurance. The U-2 is also notoriously difficult to fly — its pilots need assistance from a pilot on the ground when landing because of visibility restrictions, and its glider-like design makes it difficult to set down. Also, pilots have to wear space suits, and pressurization malfunctions can lead to serious health problems from the bends, or decompression sickness.

Nevertheless, in the ISR community, the U-2 is revered for its adaptability, says retired Maj. Gen. James Poss, a former Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for ISR.

“We always used to joke and call the U-2 Mr. Potato Head, and that’s kind of what it was. You could rip the nose off and stick a completely different sensor in; you could transfer pods on both sides and put just about whatever you wanted into it,” Poss explains.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has been chipping away at the U-2 advantages by equipping Global Hawks with brackets so a variety of sensors can be swapped in or out, including two that previously were flown exclusively on U-2s. One is the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System-2, a multispectral long-range camera. The other is the Optical Bar Camera, a film-camera famous for mapping Afghanistan for the U.S. and its allies during the war against the Taliban and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

SYERS-2, made by UTC Aerospace Systems, is described by its maker as a “folding telescope” that creates high-resolution infrared images so that it can pierce the night and hazy or foggy conditions. A Global Hawk carried a SYERS-2 on an ISR mission earlier this year.

The film in the Optical Bar Camera, also built by UTC, is processed after landing. The camera has been flown on U-2s for nearly 50 years and has been highly valued for its ability to take pictures with extremely fine resolution and broad areas of coverage. An Optical Bar Camera may fly on a Global Hawk before the end of the year.

Not everyone sees the logic in the Pentagon’s current path.

“Right now, they’re spending literally billions of dollars shrinking all of the stuff on the U-2 to fit on the Global Hawk, to then can” — meaning retire — “the U-2,” says Keven Gambold, chief executive of the Americas operations for Unmanned Experts, which advises companies on drone use.

Conceptualizing the TR-X

Lockheed Martin decided to start work toward a new spy plane after learning of the Air Force’s plan to spend billions upgrading the Global Hawks to make them more like U-2s.

“Our engineers said: ‘Gosh, for that kind of money, we could build a whole new fleet,'” Winstead said.

In 2015, Rob Weiss, general manager of Skunk Works, put his engineers to work on coming up with the concept for a new aircraft. After about five months, they produced the TR-X plan. Because the operational TR-X would rely heavily on existing technology, copying many features from the U-2, it could be developed, tested and fielded relatively quickly — in 10 years. As U-2s are taken out of service, many of their components could be reused in new TR-Xs.

Unlike the U-2s and Global Hawks, the TR-Xs would be refuelable and their shapes would be designed for stealth. Enemy radars would find it difficult to detect them, or at the very least they would be forced to expend more energy in the attempt. Each TR-X would carry any payload that U-2s and Global Hawks carry, and because of their open-mission system design, they could carry any sensors built to a non-proprietary software standard.

If maximum radar evasion were a priority, then for an additional cost, the TR-X could be modified to hide U-2 and Global Hawk antennas that would otherwise attach to the fuselage and create a radar signature. Designers could hide the nose sensors that TR-X would adopt from the U-2 or Global Hawk. Electronic radar evasion measures also could be added at a cost for wartime missions. The additional radar stealth measures could be fitted onto only some of the airplanes in the fleet to hold down costs.

About 90 percent of the payload systems from the U-2 and Global Hawk would be repurposed, and 80 percent of the TR-X’s hardware would come from existing aircraft, Winstead says.

The TR-X would fly at 70,000 feet, allowing it to scan 480-kilometer segments of the ground; carry U-2-sized payloads of up to about 2,300 kilograms; carry a U-2-sized generator or bigger — U-2’s is larger than Global Hawk’s; and the data links carried by both aircraft. Like the U-2, it could carry both a multi-spectral imager and radar at the same time, which it could switch between if bad weather obstructed the multi-spectral imager.

The TR-X would also save money by having pilots control the planes from a common mission control center where other kinds of planes would also be flown.

Proposing a timeline

Lockheed Martin wants the Air Force to spend the first money on TR-X in fiscal 2020, and continue for 10 years until 30 of the new aircraft are fielded. It argues that building a new fleet would eliminate the need to someday improve and refurbish the Global Hawks, which it calculates would be required in about 2035.

“Do you want to look at extending the wings on the Global Hawk and a life extension there, or do you want to look at a next-generation platform? And that’s what we think will resonate within the Air Force,” Winstead told reporters.

A new spy plane with U-2-or-better capabilities would also make a definitive wind-down plan for the U-2, rather than keeping the costly plane flying and having to forgo relatively inexpensive upgrades because the plane is designated as a sunset system. The year-to-year U-2-vs.-Global-Hawk battle is hurting both programs, Winstead said.

Also, if and when the U-2s are finally retired, currently the only way the Air Force can get similar high-altitude ISR into the field is to produce more Global Hawks.

“Is that what you want to do for a platform that’s a ’90s design, that’s only going to carry you into the 2030 timeframe?” Winstead asked. “Or do you go with something new?”

According to Poss, the retired Air Force major general, the company will have a tough time convincing the Air Force to spend money on a new project.

The Air Force has been clear that its spending priorities are the new B-21 stealth bombers that Northrop Grumman was chosen to build, as well as the Boeing KC-46 air tankers and the F-35As.

Whenever a new airplane is under development, even if it’s based on existing technology, there’s always risk with the technology, he says. Lockheed would have to prove that risk was pretty low, and prove that the new plane could take over seamlessly without losing ISR coverage ability in the transition.

The U-2 and Global Hawk aircraft play such an important role today that the Air Force cannot take any of them off line to free up money for their replacements, Poss says.

“The problem you’re always going to come back to is: ‘OK, it might be the best platform in America, but can you fit that with the existing program,'” he says. “If we’re struggling to afford the existing program, how do you recapitalize and get a new program out of that money?”

If Lockheed can’t have the TR-X funded through an existing program and can’t ensure that the coverage of the currently fielded Global Hawks and U-2s continues uninterrupted, then it won’t convince the Air Force to adopt the new concept, Poss predicts.

Lockheed Martin’s Winstead said that a new spy plane, regardless of who builds it, will be the best way for the Air Force to solve its U-2-Global-Hawk dilemma, and it makes the most fiscal sense.

“Let’s just establish a time frame,” he said. “Let’s establish a way ahead, and let us compete with Northrop Grumman. Let us compete with General Atomics, or Raytheon, or whoever else wants to grow the platform out.” ★

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About Keith Button

Keith has written for C4ISR Journal and Hedge Fund Alert, where he broke news of the 2007 Bear Stearns hedge fund blowup that kicked off the global credit crisis. He is based in New York.

Spying standoff

The Pentagon relies on two competing spy planes for high-altitude reconnaissance missions — and appears to be in no hurry to ditch either one.

The U-2, a single-pilot aircraft that first flew during the Cold War, can see farther and carry bigger payloads than the smaller RQ-4 Global Hawk. On the other hand, the Global Hawk, which is operated by pilots in ground stations, can stay aloft two or three times longer than the U-2.

U-2S Dragon Lady

  • Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin
  • Wingspan: 31.4 meters
  • Maximum weight: 18,144 kilograms
  • Cruise speed: 764 kph
  • Payload: 2,268 kilograms
  • Ceiling: 70,000 feet
  • Range: 9,600 kilometers
  • Endurance: 16 hours (in practice, human pilots can fly about 10 hours at a stretch)

RQ-4 Global Hawk

  • Manufacturer: Northrop Grumman
  • Wingspan: 39.9 meters
  • Maximum weight: 14,628 kilograms
  • Cruise speed: 574 kph
  • Payload: 1,360 kilograms
  • Ceiling: 60,000 feet
  • Range: 22,780 kilometers
  • Endurance: 36 hours

Gauging costs

Lockheed Martin says 30 TR-X spy planes would cost $3.8 billion. Here are other examples of what the U.S. spends on aerospace products:

  • $379 billion for 2,457 variants of the F-35 for the Air Force, Marines and Navy
  • $10 billion for 45 Global Hawks, 33 of which remain in the fleet
  • $8.8 billion for the James Webb Space Telescope

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office

A u-2 spy plane flies over a mountainous landscape with large bodies of water and a dam visible below.
After 60 years, the U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane still has admirers in the intelligence community who oppose its retirement. Credit: Lockheed Martin
A u.s. air force drone flying over a rugged desert landscape.
The U.S. Air Force says it plans to continue upgrading its Global Hawk fleet even as deliveries of the unmanned reconnaissance plane will end next year. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Wanted: An ISR showdown