Dragon Lady


By Dario Leone
Dec 30 2016
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Legacy mission system for high-altitude U-2 replaced

On Dec. 15, 2016 a U-2 Dragon Lady, flying from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, performed the final sortie for one of its mission systems, as reported by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carwile 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in his article After 40 years of service legacy mission system for high-altitude U-2 is replaced.

The final mission for this system was flown by the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS) – one of two high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft flying missions in support of defending the region.

Two different components make up the particular system. Together, these pieces have produced valuable intelligence products that have supported every branch of the U.S. military and helped consistently provide decisional advantages to combatant commanders.

A U-2, flying from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, approaches the maintenance hangar after the final sortie for one of its mission systems, Dec. 15, 2016. The final flight is celebrated with a traditional shower and a greeting party consisting of the crews that have maintained the now retired mission system. The retired system will be replaced with one that is currently flown on the RQ-4, enhancing the combined products of manned and unmanned high-altitude products.

“The system is being replaced with a new, more advanced multi-platform technology,” said Dennis Walker, Chief of Payload Section, U-2 Branch, C2ISR (Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Division at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. Walker attended the final flight of the mission system.

The new system, already used on the RQ-4 Global Hawk

The new system, already used on the RQ-4 Global Hawk, offers some automation and technological improvements over the older one. Sharing the same system between the U-2 and RQ-4 also provides cost savings by using a single source for similar and complimentary capabilities.

“Based on the budgetary challenges of keeping both platforms, it made sense to share the capability across platforms rather than develop and acquire a separate system,” said Lt. Col. William, 99th ERS commander. “The legacy system operated faithfully and well on the U-2 for over 40 years, but was at the end of its service life.”

Walker stated that the move to the new system has been in progress for the past ten years with the last three spent consolidating the old system down to the 380th AEW.

“This system has supported world-wide missions across multiple Air Force commands and in support of numerous operations,” said Walker. “This is the last location in the world with this sensor, and this was the last time it will ever be flown.”

Providing information from the strategic level to the tactical leve

The retired mission system has served the U.S. Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission for over 40 years, providing high altitude ISR products to support national defense.

“Basically, the U-2 provides intelligence that can help the U.S. and Coalition Forces determine enemy capabilities and intents,” said Capt. Joshua, 99th ERS. “This information affects strategic and tactical levels, helping to direct movements, advance the Air Force mission and save lives.”

Joshua states that the U-2 provides information ranging from the strategic level – large movements of adversaries and equipment – all the way down to the tactical level – individual activities like placing an improvised explosive device.

“Our proof is in the product we provide to the warfighter,” said Walker. “In just the last year of service, this mission system has supported over 550 sorties, with over 5,000 flying hours.”

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Craig Cisek, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carwile, Staff Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo and Master Sgt. Jenifer Calhoun / U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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