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 aircraft 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.
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to conduct reconnaissance operations in lightly contested regions where anti-aircraft assets are unlikely or seriously outdated.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.