“THE AIRPLANE IS NOTHING LIKE WHAT POWERS FLEW,” says Bryan Swords, currently the chief engineer for the U-2S at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company’s Palmdale, California office. Swords is referring, of course, to Francis Gary Powers, who, four years after overflights began over the U.S.S.R., Poland, and East Germany, had the unfortunate distinction of being shot down in a U-2 near Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. “It’s 40 percent larger, it’s been re-engined, it’s got a new cockpit, and it’s been rewired to support extremely modern, stronger sensors,” says Swords.
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The U-2’s adaptability has kept it in service since the mid-1950s and should keep it off the endangered species list for another half-century. The airplane originated as a response to a desperate need for reconnaissance over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Bell, Fairchild, and Martin were among the firms invited to submit proposals. But when he heard about the competition, Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed submitted a design as well. Johnson was the chief engineer at Lockheed’s Skunk Works in Burbank, California, and his entry was basically a powered glider based on a modified F-104 Starfighter fuselage mated to very long wings and a centerline landing gear. The CL-282, as it was called, was a simple and adaptable reconnaissance platform. The Air Force promptly rejected it, but the CIA grabbed it up and code-named it Aquatone. It first flew in 1955.
Today, the aircraft has a new name: Senior Year, and many of its systems have the prefix Senior, as in Senior Ruby and Senior Glass. Less officially, the large, black, sinister-looking spycraft is known as the Dragon Lady.
Even from the start, the U-2’s evolution has been driven by its sensors. “The Air Force comes to us with a capability requirement,” says Mark A. Mitchell, Lockheed Martin U-2 program office manager. “There’s a new sensor out there, a new operational concept, and they want the airplane to be able to support it.” Mitchell’s job is to respond to the Air Force’s wants in a rapidly changing world. During World War II, he says, a large military target or a city would be photographed by speedy, high-flying reconnaissance airplanes and then hit by hundreds of heavy bombers. That mode of operation continued into the cold war, though with one change in plan: If there were a U.S.-Soviet exchange, just a few bombers would be deployed, with nuclear bombs.
But the link between reconnoitering a target and attacking it is undergoing a revolutionary change. The new way of doing things is called network-centric, or net-centric, warfare. The military is turning reconnaissance systems into an information network like the Internet, in which all the image and signals collectors are connected to one another, as well as to the combatants in the air and on the ground. Soldiers searching for Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, for example, can now send a request to task a nearby reconnaissance satellite to scour the area, and can download the images it captures to their laptops and see them in seconds. If it’s urgent, a U-2 in the vicinity could be directed to fly in for a closer look. And if the U-2’s sensors confirm what the satellite saw, the troops know it almost instantly. The Department of Defense calls this arrangement the Global Information Grid, and it is in continuous operation around the world.
A ground operations center on the other side of the world can also direct the intelligence collectors to get specific data, provide aircraft navigation instructions, operate the sensors, communicate with the aircraft, with satellites, and with other collectors, and then direct the collectors to communicate with one another to share information and to deliver the intelligence to soldiers, sailors, or marines. The military calls this “fused” intelligence, and well over $1 billion is being spent to fully integrate the Dragon Lady into the system.
To take sensor management as an example, technicians at control panels thousands of miles away can direct the sensors while its pilot looks on (his main job is to fly his aircraft). Using a satellite to relay the data, a U-2 looking and listening deep inside North Korea sends its take back to the United States. And it gets its instructions from controllers at home the same way.
What has changed dramatically, Mitchell adds, is that a single U-2 can train an array of sensors, including imaging systems, antennas, and receivers that intercept radio signals, on a target. Then that information can be sent directly and immediately to a single F-16 pilot, who can obliterate the target with a single precision-guided bunker-busting bomb. Twelve O’Clock High and its armadas of heavies is gone forever.
The U-2’s adaptability has spurred the creative drive of two generations of engineers. Although Johnson conceived the CL-282 to look and listen, successive versions have been put to other uses, at least experimentally, a flexibility that undoubtedly pleased him. (He died in 1990.) Two were fitted with air samplers to monitor nuclear tests. Ten were given inflight refueling capability (no longer used). Someone even proposed modifying a U-2 into a bomber, with tricycle landing gear, but the idea didn’t fly. Three got folding outer wings for use on carriers. All U-2s now have wings that fold 70 inches from their tips to help get them into small hangars overseas.
Two changes were of fundamental long-term importance: The airplane was stretched and its wing lengthened to extend its range and provide more room for sensors. And the aircraft was converted from analog to digital wiring and electronics, which allowed it to carry a wider range of standardized sensors that can simply plug into the airplane’s data bus like computers in a network. The resulting U-2Rs and the TR-1s, both of which had 103-foot wingspans, were 23 feet longer than the U-2 they replaced.