The Lockheed U-2, which often goes by the name “Dragon Lady” is among the most legendary U.S. military aircraft. The development of the high altitude reconnaissance plane was a technological triumph of the era, and sightings of the mysterious craft being tested around locations like “Area 51” in Nevada undoubtedly informed crackpot theories about flying saucers in America’s Southwest for years. The U-2 was never armed with offensive weapons, but played an integral role in America’s national defense, spying on opponents from as high as 70,000 feet – which in the 1950s, was high enough to avoid not only most enemy weapons systems, but even most forms of detection.

Of course, it’s been a long time since the 1950s, and with advanced stealth aircraft like the F-35 and forthcoming B-21 Raider, one could be forgiven for thinking that the days of the U-2 streaking across the skies are over. That assumption, however, would be wrong.

Lt. Col. Lars Hoffman reviews his checklist before flying the U-2S Dragon Lady, Block 20, aircraft on its first flight from Osan Air Base, South Korea, on Tuesday, June 20, 2006. (USAF Photo)

The U.S. Air Force actually maintains 33 operational U-2s in its fleet, including 5 two-seat trainers and two used specifically for NASA operations. The rest, some might be surprised to learn, continue to conduct reconnaissance operations in lightly contested regions where anti-aircraft assets are unlikely or seriously outdated. In fact, large portions of the United States ongoing combat operations take place in these sorts of environments, allowing the U-2 to continue to play an active role in the American war effort, despite losing headlines to more advanced platforms in the decades since it first captured the American imagination.

Now, a suite of new sensor upgrades designed to fit snugly within a fairly compact modular package promises to not only extend the useful lifespan of the U-2, but also to dramatically increase its already impressive reconnaissance capabilities. The system, which will include advanced laser imaging and multi-mode cameras, is currently under development at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for use on both the U-2 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. The suite of advanced sensor equipment will be housed within the Air Force’s “AgilePod,” which the branch owns the design rights and trademark for.

The US Air Force’s AgilePod modular sensor pod with a pair of sensor turrets courtesy of the USAF

The AgilePod system is designed to be modular, allowing technicians to swap in three to five specialized sections to help the aircraft accomplish a wide variety of reconnaissance missions. Because the new sensors also boast a significantly increased range over the dated tech usually adorning the U-2, it also means allowing the aging aircraft to continue serving its purpose while allowing it to stay even further outside any potential anti-air defenses in an operational zone.

The Air Force is currently farming contracts for the continued development of the AgilePod, though they claim to have completed most of the design work already. In reality, the company that wins the contract may end up doing away with some of what has already been accomplished, if they manage to find a way to increase capability while maintaining or decreasing cost or weight. Every gram counts when you’re flying a payload to the edge of space.

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The introduction of these AgilePods, while still in development, will mean changing the U-2s load out for new missions won’t be much more difficult than swapping ordnance on an armed aircraft, unlike the arduous process of reconfiguring the equipment in the U-2s nose. That means the Air Force may be able to keep the U-2 in the fight even longer, thanks to the ability to update and upgrade its sensors with negligible costs.

In other words, aerial reconnaissance, like most combat operations, may seem like a job America leaves to robots and satellites, but the truth is, humans will still be in the cockpit for these missions for what promises to be decades to come.

 

Feature photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force