NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – While working with the Air Force to keep the U-2 spy plane flying for as long as needed, Lockheed Martin [LMT] is anticipating an eventual need for a next-generation high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance aircraft.

The so-called TR-X will be an optionally manned “workhorse” ISR platform capable of routine peacetime intelligence gathering and high-intensity wartime surveillance, Scott Winstead, Lockheed Martin’s U-2 strategic business manager, said Sept. 14 at the Air Force Association’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference.

With the U-2 as a “foundational ISR system” the TR-X will incorporate many of the existing technologies of both the U-2 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The Air Force currently has 17 U-2S aircraft and 21 Global Hawks flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

Lockheed Martin's concept for TR-X high-altitude ISR aircraft.
Lockheed Martin’s concept for TR-X high-altitude ISR aircraft.

There have been quantum leaps in stealth technology since the current U-2 was designed in the 1980s and even since the advent of the Global Hawk in the 1990s, Winstead said. Lockheed Martin wants to integrate many of those low-observable technologies onto the next-generation U-2. The aircraft currently exists only as a concept design that would use the same General Electric [GE] F118 engine as the U-2, which will support the assumed altitude requirement of 70,000 feet while being more affordable than developing a new powerplant or using a larger one, Winstead said.

The next-generation U-2 will likely borrow technologies from both the manned U-2S and the unmanned RQ-4, which has been referred to as the future of long-endurance ISR by Air Force officials.

“We see a complementary fleet,” he said. “You can spend billions of dollars on one or the other. You can try to turn one into the other, but the reality is we think there is more cost advantage in pushing toward a next-generation high-altitude ISR platform.”

The Air Force has no specific requirement for a new high-altitude ISR and has been in a love/hate relationship with the existing U-2 for a decade or more, alternately supporting its continued service and vowing to scrap the manned platform in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk. It takes a fleet of five U-2s, which can stay aloft for 12 hours with a pilot in the cockpit, or three Global Hawks, which can fly for more than 24 hours, to maintain a round-the clock ISR orbit.

Winstead said the TR-X will be pitched to the Air Force as an unsolicited proposal, just as the original U-2 was in the 1950s. In that context, the platform “will have to sell itself,” Winstead said.

“If it starts to resonate, then we’ll put more money into it,” he said.

The Air Force now plans to fly the U-2 at least until 2019, when it is scheduled to retire. Melani Austin, Lockheed Martin U-2 director, reminded reporters that 2019 is not the first retirement date the Air Force has set for the Cold War-era spy plane.

“Were working extremely hard on the current U-2 program to make sure it’s as cost-effective and viable for the next 25 years,” Austin said.

“So, 2019 is not the first retirement date that this program has had,” she added.

The current U-2S not only carries ISR payloads, but has been upgraded to act as a communications node, relaying voice and video between ground units that are out of visual range. The so-called Dragonfly system allows deployed soldiers to bounce communications off an airborne U-2 all the way to the continental United States and receive data in return.

“We’re going to expand on that in the near future…where we can open up a link to beyond line-of-sight and to intel units back here in the states,” he said. “So now you’ve got the warfighter on one side with…an imager and an F-16 to call in a strike, and another guy with an imager so that they can now coordinate their strikes with help from the states.”

A common mission control center (CMCC) allows imagery from the U-2 to be shared among multiple platforms, including the F-22 Raptor, which is given access to the Link-16 communications network that allows fourth-generation aircraft like the F-16 to interact digitally with the fifth-generation fighter, he said.

The U-2S acts as a “common gateway” for the various platforms to share information and allows pilots to redirect munitions like the long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM) mid-flight is a target shifts.

“What we’re showing…is you need to start collaborating with…your warfighting efforts and your warfighting assets,” he said.

As the original 1950s U-2 evolved into the current iteration of the aircraft, Lockheed Martin designed the hardware and software as modular, open-architecture systems so that the aircraft could be rapidly upgraded to keep pace with technological advances.

“Modularity was the piece that really kept the U-2 relevant for the warfighter,” he said. “If you have a modular payload, you can easily plug and play with new sensors. With open mission systems, it gives you the software architecture to make it even faster.”