The secret to a spyplane's eternal youth is a new suite of gadgets installed on a classic chassis.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, March 2005
Denny Lombard/Lockheed Martin
(Page 3 of 6)
The new intelligence collecting devices are not only extraordinarily sensitive, they also interact with one another like components of a nervous system. The sensors either look or listen, and three of them collect imagery:
An ASARS-2A (for Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System) is nose-mounted for all-weather and day-night capability. It can observe 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface in an hour with a resolution of one foot. The radar has a moving-target indicator that can highlight a column of advancing tanks, for example. The 2A is the latest version of the ASARS and is just going into operation.
An electro-optical system called SYERS 2 (Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System) uses five visual and two infrared bands that can combine to penetrate haze or darkness. It too is nose-mounted and continually upgraded to improve collection at night and bad weather. The infrared system is so sensitive it can detect the temperature difference between the cooler fuel in an airplane’s tanks and the warm airframe and show the amount of fuel on board.
A wet film system, called an Optical Bar Camera, that was initially developed for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird has been converted by Goodrich to be carried in the U-2S’s Q-bay. Its 66-inch focal length produces very-high-resolution photographs straight down and at angles to the sides of the airplane. Though it still uses film, the camera has been improved. And although the images on the film can’t be transmitted until the film is developed after the airplane lands, wet film produces photographs that are clearer than digital images.
And soon there will be more eyes: Hughes is developing a compact, lightweight, electro-optical infrared sensor called the DB-110 that will collect high-resolution imagery in two bands for any or all of three image types: continuous ground coverage, spot coverage, and stereo 3-D, all three modes distributed via data link.
If one system can be said to represent the future U-2, it is the SPIRITT—the Spectral Infrared Remote Imaging Transition Test—which is being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio. The idea is to create a day-night, high-altitude, super-sensitive sensor test bed that will combine optical images and radar to get an almost instant, high-quality picture of the target. The system will be so sensitive it can spot even obscured targets, like tanks hiding in thick forests. The foliage-penetrating program even has its own name: TUT, for Targets Under Trees. It will use data from very-high-frequency synthetic aperture radar and other sensors. And the whole integrated package is being designed to fit into the Dragon Lady’s Q-bay and into its unmanned counterpart, the Global Hawk. Pat Fillingim, a spokesperson for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Sensors Directorate, which is developing SPIRITT, describes it as potentially “a new sensor suite for an old lady.”
At one point, someone also had the idea of using the high flier to photograph satellites. The plan was to extend the nose four feet and put in a camera like those in reconnaissance satellites, using a standard mirror set at a 45-degree angle. The passing satellite’s image would reflect off the mirror and into the same kind of long-focal-length parabolic mirror that was used in the KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance satellite. But it was decided that the elaborate system would cost more than it was worth, so it was killed.
Other collectors carried by the U-2S listen. One suite receives both communication traffic and other kinds of electronic emanations, such as radar signals. These signals can be relayed directly to deployable ground stations—DGSs—in the field, or, via satellite relay, anywhere on the globe. No one at Lockheed Martin will say that the relay spacecraft are Defense Satellite Communications System IIIs, several of which are in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. In time of war, voice and coded communication can be pulled in by the U-2S and relayed directly to friendly forces.