Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is currently designing the next-generation of sophisticated spy planes.
The US aerospace company is designing a high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) surveillance plane as an optionally-manned successor to the U-2 and the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Lockheed Martin’s advanced R&D arm – Skunk Works – is pursuing an improved version of the U-2, known internally as RQ-X or UQ-2, with programme officials stating that its engineers have been mulling over designs for a stealthy HALE platform that would combine the best of the U-2 and its unmanned rival, the Global Hawk.
The improved version of the U-2 would carry many of the same sensors as the current aircraft which is optimised to fly at 70,000 ft (21,336m) or higher, with the biggest difference being its low-observable characteristics.
Lockheed Martin’s U-2 strategic development manager, Scott Winstead, said the new spy plane would contain all the features of the current U-2, but would have lower observability.
“Think of a low-observable U-2, it’s pretty much where the U-2 is today, but add a low-observable body and more endurance,” he said.
The disclosure of the new spy plane comes on the 60th anniversary of the U-2 program, and comes at a time when stagnant defence budgets have forced the US Government to choose between retiring the U-2 or going with the Global Hawk.
The US Air Force has no formal requirement for a U-2 successor and has not released a time frame for when it might start pursuing a HALE platform for the future.
The US Air Force’s latest budget plan has the U-2 retiring in 2019.
Lockheed Martin’s development of a new aircraft is the latest moment in a long running competition with Northrop Grumman for funding of their respective U-2 and RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft.
Despite the US Air Force not yet committing to a next-generation HALE platform, U-2 program director Melani Austin said that Skunk Works could see a future need and would be remiss not to have a new aircraft in development.
“With funding and a clear and stable environment, Skunk Works could again rapidly deliver a next-generation aircraft with far more capability than either the U-2 or Global Hawk,” she said.
Skunk Works is famous for delivering the first U-2A aircraft in under one year in 1955 and returning 15% of the development cost to the US Government for underrunning the contract.