One of the hottest topics in the US military today is networking for battle management. Work to connect sensors, systems, shooters and decision-makers across the armed forces, in real time, is accelerating. They now call it Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). But the U-2 has been at the forefront of this effort for more than a decade already. And now the entire Dragon Lady fleet will become the first that is fully compliant with the Open Mission Systems (OMS) that make JADC2 possible.
For the U-2, it began in an ad-hoc manner as combatants realized the utility of a loitering high-altitude platform. Over Afghanistan, U-2 pilots monitored strike frequencies for calls from troops-in-contact (TICs) and offered to bring the aircraft’s sensors to bear. Those sensors were retasked by the ground station, and the resulting intelligence was relayed to the TICs.
Next came a more organized system for relaying imagery and C2 data. The Dragonfly upgrade to the Dragon Lady’s datalinks enabled real-time direct dissemination of U-2 and other imagery (above). For instance, full-motion video (FMV) from another platform such as the MQ-9 Reaper could be piped directly into the portable laptops carried by soldiers named ROVER. Or, the U-2 could relay Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) communications to Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOCs). It could also provide connections between a ship and a Maritime Operations Center.
A quick-reaction capability for US Central Command (CENTCOM) named DragonNet enabled soldiers in different locations to share FMV on their ROVER terminals via the U-2’s ability to provide two line-of-sight datalinks.
When coupled with the U-2’s Satcom relay capability, these datalinks also enabled imagery to be sent to soldiers from far away ground stations, or vice-versa. By early 2016, the Skunk Works was referring to the U-2’s expanded communications capability as DragonWeb (below).
But it was already clear that, to be practical and affordable, comprehensive multi-domain networking would require the adoption of OMS. The US Air Force formally promulgated government-owned OMS standards in April 2014.
By then, Lockheed Martin had been studying multi-domain operations for years, and the Skunk Works had been devising its own open systems architecture (OSA) for more than a year. In mid-2014, ADP began planning for an OMS demonstration using the U-2. In a three-week period at the end of that year, four payloads were fitted and flown on separate test flights in U-2S 80-1073 (below). Three different electronic warfare systems from BAE Systems, MST and Raytheon, plus the U-2’s existing SYERS-2C imaging sensor, got airborne using the new architecture.
The trial was named the “OMS ISR Demo #1”. Essentially, it used a ‘bolt-on’ computer that provided a protective ‘wrapper’ around the aircraft’s proprietary and flight-critical software, and offered quick integration of OMS-compliant payloads. Honeywell designed dual-band apertures that were fitted to the U-2’s payload bay. A modernized IP-based ‘Gen3’ modem datalink from L3Com relayed the output from the sensors to the prototype Common Mission Control Center (CMCC), a ‘smart’ C2 and ISR ground station that exploits open architecture. The flights also demonstrated onboard dynamic route planning and sensor processing and fusion. Rob Weiss, the Chief Skunk, said that the demo proved that aircraft like the U-2 could be quickly and affordably modernized.
In June 2015, a second demonstration focusing on communications and named Project Iguana was performed. The U-2 was quickly fitted with a SIGINT sensor from BAE Systems; the F-22’s Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL); Link 16; and the latest Gen4 datalink modem named Chameleon from L-3 Com. This enabled the U-2 to act as a gateway, passing data to and from an F-22, two F-18s, troops on the ground using Rover sets, and the CMCC, either directly or via satellite. The flights also demonstrated the dynamic retasking of a surrogate long-range air-to-surface (LRASM) missile that was already launched toward a target, based on updated ISR information from the U-2’s sensors.
In only three months, a total of seven OMS-compliant payloads had been added to the U-2. “This was an awesome accomplishment,” said U-2 test pilot ‘Coach’ Nelson. “A couple of years ago, any one of them would have required a dedicated test flight.”
The next experiment was named Jukebox. In October 2016 the U-2 again linked up with the CMCC via Satellite, to relay communications during a tactical exercise by ground forces.
Meanwhile at Palmdale, work was underway on a second iteration of the OMS computer. This was designated Enterprise open systems Mission Computer 2.0 (EMC2), and so acquired the nickname “The Einstein Box” (below). It made its debut in May 2017 in US Air Force Exercise Northern Edge, within which Project Hunter was staged as another OMS test. Together with personnel from the 9th Wing, the Skunk Works deployed U-2S 80-1070 to Elmendorf airbase, Alaska to act as a communications and processing node during six flights over a two-week period that demonstrated new levels of data sharing (below).
In particular, the utility of Link 16 was enhanced by using it to connect an F-22 with F-16s via datalink and to disseminate messages from a Distributed Ground System (DGS) station via a secure radio. It was the first use of an open radio architecture. Covert communications within contested airspace was another aspect of the demonstration. Also, the U-2 again enabled dynamic retasking of a missile already inflight. The Einstein Box hosted all of the OMS processing and served as the interface to all radios.
Next came Project Riot, in March 2019. This involved the F-35 for the first time, with the stealth fighter detecting a long-range ballistic missile launch with its onboard sensors and relaying that information via the U-2 to the CMCC, enabling a commander to make a timely decision to target the threat. Also demonstrated in Project Riot was the relay of data to the CMCC from the U-2’s own sensors alongside those of the F-35. “This demonstration continues our commitment to provide complete battlespace awareness and seamless interoperability to enable multi-domain operations,” said John Clark, the vice-president for ISR and UAS at The Skunk Works.
The following month, there was a demonstration of how the Einstein Box could allow machine-to-machine retasking of the U-2’s ASARS imaging radar sensor via a CMCC.
All these demonstrations have made another powerful case for retaining and upgrading the Dragon Lady. The Air Force has now decided to fund a complete upgrade of the U-2’s avionics – which was last done in the early 2000s. The technology of the Einstein Box will be incorporated into a new mission computer that is fully OMS-compliant. There will be a new avionics processor and higher resolution, touch-screen cockpit displays.
The unique datalinks employed by the F-22 and the F-35 (IFDL and MADL respectively), as well as Link 16 and the Integrated Broadcast Service (IBS), will be also integrated with the U-2. There has been much angst in the Air Force over the limited ability of the F-22 and the F-35 to communicate data with other aircraft, because the IFDL and MADL were designed to be stealthy. The Dragon Lady will become an even more useful communications node, with the potential to solve that problem.
The work has started, and the entire fleet should be upgraded by the end of 2023. The Skunk Works has named this effort Dragon STAR (Sensors Technology and Avionics Refresh).
Thus U-2 will thus become a true “plug-and-play’ aircraft. That will permit continuous updating of sensors, including electronic warfare and SIGINT systems. For instance, I expect that the OMS-compliant U-2 will be used to test-fly new SIGINT sensors as part of the Air Force’s Global High-altitude Open-system Sensor Technology (GHOST) program. Contractors are being invited to develop new “platform agnostic” sensors. In the case of the U-2, these devices will ultimately replace the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) that is currently operational on the Dragon Lady.