U-2 Flies in Alaska Exercise for First Time, But Not as a Spy Plane

The Dragon Lady carried a special communications package to help get information to and from other aircraft.

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The U.S. Air Force routinely uses the annual Northern Edge exercise in Alaska to test out advanced technology and new tactics to go along with those state-of-the-art systems. From newly released photos and video, it’s clear the 2017 iteration of the war game was no different.

For Northern Edge 2017, which ran from May 1 to 212, 2017, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing situated at Beale Air Force Base in California sent a U-2S, 130 personnel, and associated equipment to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. This was the first time a Dragon Lady spy plane had ever taken part in the exercise – and in this case the unit had configured the aircraft primarily to act as a powerful communications relay.

Going to Northern Edge “allows the U-2 to demonstrate new advanced technology that is coming out, such as sensor and communication packages,” an Air Force officer identified only as Major Dustin, a member of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing’s 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, told the service’s reporters. “By merging test development, operational test and experimental technologies, we are looking at opportunities to advance the U-2 program in both the near term as well as the next 2-5 years,” another official, a Major Brian from Detachment 2, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, added.

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For the practice sessions, the U-2S was carrying gear that “fully integrated the Dragon Lady with 4th and 5th generation aircraft,” according to an official news item. The story did not specify what this system was, but pictures and video showed a U-2S with a distinctive white package in the aircraft’s equipment slot underneath the fuselage behind the cockpit, which is commonly known as the “Q-Bay.” A yellow-brown antenna was visible sticking out of the modular section.

In July 2015, Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works special projects office showed off pictures of a very similar looking setup on a U-2 at their facility in Palmdale California. The Maryland headquartered defense contractor designed and built the first U-2s in the 1950s and has continued to support and improve the aircraft. “This demonstration focused on communications relay capabilities and dynamic weapon retargeting,” John Clark, the head of Skunk Works, said at the time.

In that instance, the Dragon Lady acted as a gateway for sending information between 4th generation F/A-18 Hornet and 5th generation F-22 Raptor fighter jets. The aircraft used the information to point a surrogate of the firm’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile at a different target while the weapon was already in flight.

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A U-2S with a similar communications package at Lockheed's Palmdale plant in 2015.

The U-2S that went to Northern Edge came straight from Lockheed's Skunk Work's Plant 42, further suggesting this was the same system or an new version thereof. With this sort of data link, the aircraft would have had more than enough opportunities to show off similar capabilities during the exercise. The 2017 event also featured stealthy F-22s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

One of the biggest potential benefits of the F-35 is its ability to collect huge amounts of information from its on board sensors and send those details along to other American forces in the air and on the ground. If everything works as intended, between its AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, infrared Electro-Optical Targeting System, and AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System for increased situation awareness, the Joint Strike Fighters should have the ability to spot and categorize a variety of potential threats and points of interest.  With fast-scanning AN/APG-77 AESA, AN/ALR-94 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system, and data links, the Raptors are powerful information “sponges” in their own right.

And that’s not to mention the various other aircraft that took part in the training missions. These included Air Force F-15C Eagles – some of which may have had the AN/APG-63(V)3 AESA, which is arguably one of the best radars available on the market – and E-3 AWACS and U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeye radar planes. In short, there was a lot of information available to send around. 

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The U-2S at Northern Edge 2017.

More importantly, without a specialized gateway, the participating aircraft would have had far fewer options to communicate the data among themselves, if it was possible at all. The Joint Strike Fighters can share information with 4th generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16 via the Link 16 network system, but they can't do so and remain stealthy. The Raptors simply aren't set up to share information with older aircraft at all.

Moving this information around quickly and efficiently gives pilots a better understanding of their surroundings and the ability to make better decisions about how to proceed with their mock missions. It also lets aviators in 4th generation aircraft take advantage of these more advanced sensors, improving their overall combat effectiveness and survivability. Also, BACN creates an "active net" over the battlefield. Without a similar data fusion and relay system operating from on high, aircraft would lose contact with other assets while traveling at low altitudes or over longer distances. Ground and surface units may also have a less complete and constant picture of what is going on around them. With a satellite data link – like the U-2S' Senior Span/Spur pod on top of the fuselage – a pilot could send the data back to base or to commanders on the ground during actual combat missions giving various units a improved picture of the battlefield, too. 

And able to fly above 70,000 feet and with a unrefueled range of more than 7,000 miles, the U-2 is a perfect choice for this task, which requires the plane to fly regular patterns across an area for extended periods of time. In the past, NASA has teamed up with the Air Force to provide a similar capability during exercises with WB-57F Canberras, an old spy plane-turned-research aircraft, fitted with Northrop Grumman's Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). The BACN system is the Air Force's only existing method of providing this level of exchange between aircraft and has seen widespread use in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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One of the U.S. Air Force's three EQ-4B Global Hawks with the BACN package.

On top of that, the Air Force already employs the Dragon’s Lady’s unmanned competitor, Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, as a BACN platform. The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates has all three of these EQ-4B Global Hawks. In November 2015, the aircraft completed their 500th mission as part of the aerial campaign against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria. They’ve been so critical to that fight, in January 2017 the Pentagon approved a request to convert another RQ-4B drone into a fourth flying data center at a total cost of $42.5 million. With a similar and modular package for the U-2, the Air Force could rapidly employ any of the 26 Dragon Ladies in this role.

This feature could become another factor in the ongoing debate over whether to completely replace the iconic U-2s with the Global Hawk drones. As of 2016, the Air Force was still considering whether or not to send the Dragon Ladies to the boneyard within three years. We at the War Zone have already written extensively about the various potential issues involved in that plan and the Air Force's long history of trying to retire these manned spy planes.

It’s very likely that the aircraft’s proponents within the Pentagon and in Congress, as well as Lockheed itself, will point to Northern Edge 2017 as another example of the plane’s continued value to the U.S. military.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com