The U-2 is the USAF's principal piloted high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. It was developed and manufactured by Lockheed Skunk Works. The U-2, nicknamed Dragon Lady, is viewed as both a national and a tactical asset, providing critical intelligence to political decision makers and theatre commanders. It is capable of collecting multi-sensors photo, EO, IR and radar imagery, as well as Sigint. Approximately 85 aircraft were built. Currently 35 of these are in active service, thinly spread to meet worldwide contingencies, even despite the advent of surveillance satellites.
The Lockheed U-2 made it's maiden flight in 1955. It was designed for minimal airframe weight. Large wingspan give this spy plane some glider-like characteristics. The U-2 is a difficult aircraft to fly and notoriously difficult to land. Initially it was flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This aircraft came to public attention in 1960, when one aircraft was shot down over Soviet territory.
The U-2 spy plane can carry over 1 300 kg of sensors. These are carried in the detachable nosecone (with different-shaped cones for different sensor fits), a large 'Q-bay' behind the cockpit for the carriage of large cameras, smaller bays along the lower fuselage and in two removable wing super pods. These sensors include a wide range of recorders for Comint and Elint, imaging radars, ASARS-2 battlefield surveillance, PLSS radar locators and high-resolution cameras.
Recorded intelligence can be transmitted via data-link to ground stations, and at least three aircraft are equipped to carry the Senior Span satellite communications antenna in a huge teardrop radome mounted on a dorsal pylon. This allows the transmission of recorded intelligence across global distances in near real-time.
From 1994 to 1998 Lockheed re-engined surviving U-2Rs to U-2S standard, the U-2Rs J75 turbojets being replaced with F118-101 turbofans. Derived from the B-2's F118-GE-100 powerplant, the new engine is more fuel efficient, confers a 15 per cent range increase, restores operational ceiling to a figure above 24 380 m and improves supportability across USAF bases.
All U-2Ss serve with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing headquartered at Beale Air Force Base, California. The primary flying unit is the 99th RS at Beale; its three theatre detachments comprise Det 1 at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, OL-FR at Istres AB, France and OL-CH/4402nd Reconnaissance Squadron (Provisional) at Al Kharj AB, Saudi Arabia. The 5th RS is assigned to Osan AB, South Korea to cover the Far East while the 1st RS undertakes training with two U-2S(T) trainers and T-38A Talons.
Progress has been slow in exploring an unmanned replacement for this familiar spy plane. The Lockheed U-2 is in service for more than 50 years. It also outclassed it's SR-71 replacement, which was retired in 1998.
U-2A initial production model. 48 built;
U-2C improved model with a modified engine;
U-2R newer variant, larger than the previous U-2C;
TR-1A tactical reconnaissance aircraft, based on the U-2R; 33 built;
U-2S it is an upgraded and re-engined version with improved sensors. A total of 33 previous aircraft were upgraded to this standard between 1994 and 1998;
ER-2, NASA research aircraft.