Lockheed Martin will formally pitch the Air Force a program to replace the U-2 and Global Hawk in the coming months, Scott Winstead, the company’s strategic business manager, told reporters Tuesday. The aircraft will have low-observable, or stealth features, so previous images of what Lockheed calls the TR-X are obsolete, and the company won’t release new ones, he said. After long analysis, Lockheed determined that USAF will run seriously short of strategic air-breathing reconnaissance capacity and capability starting when the U-2 retires circa 2019, through the Global Hawk’s mid-2030s retirement. The jet would not be stealthy enough to survive in the toughest air defenses, but could be “risked” if a commander deems it necessary, Winstead said. Lockheed determined the “sweet spot” for operations and efficiency is 70,000 feet with one engine, giving the aircraft a 300-mile look over a target country’s borders. The company would re-use the U-2’s GE F118 engine, and sensors and software from the U-2 and Global Hawk to reduce costs, as the fleet transitions to a single-type unmanned platform. Though 77,000 feet was more operationally useful and survivable, “you need two engines to get there,” Winstead said, and the cost caused Lockheed to discard the two-engine option. Existing 45KVA generators—with ample room for growth—would also be used to power laser sensors and radars, and the wingspan would be the same as the Global Hawk’s to avoid USAF having to build new hangars. The jet would be autonomically air-refuelable to extend its mission time to around 40 hours, Winstead reported; longer than either the U-2’s 12-hour maximum or Global Hawk’s 28-plus-hour limit. (See also High-Altitude ISR at Risk from the March issue of Air Force Magazine.)
U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s regularly deploy deep into the Pacific region from Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii. In the future, though, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would like to see the Air Force permanently station fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line—closer to China.