Here's how the Air Force plans on keeping the U-2 spy plane high above the battlefield for decades to come

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An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission.

An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

The Air Force's U-2 has been keeping an eye on the planet's hot spots for 60 years, and with a $50 million contract the service awarded in April, the U-2 will not only be able to peer at adversaries but also better support friendly forces for decades to come.

Lockheed Martin, which developed the aircraft in the 1950s, announced the contract for design, integration, and testing of new advanced components on April 9. Interim fielding is planned for mid-2021, followed by fleet modification in early 2022, according to a release.

The work, called Avionics Tech Refresh, is part of a broader effort to expand what the U-2 can do and to enable future upgrades.

The U-2s in use now were built in the 1980s. "All of them have about 80% of their airframe life still remaining," Irene Helley, Lockheed's U-2 program director, said in a late-April interview.

The aircraft was redesigned in a modular format in the late 1980s, which makes it an ideal platform for upgrades and for putting new technology in the field, Helley said, as it "allows us to plug and play a lot of new systems and take them from concept to development to instrumentation, testing, and fielding within months," rather than years.

"Ultimately what we're doing in this Avionics Tech Refresh is setting up that backbone for a lot of the future missions," Sean Thatcher, program manager for Lockheed's Avionics Tech refresh, said in the interview.

'Open up that multi-role aspect'

A U-2 spy plane pilot prepares for a mission

A U-2 spy plane pilot prepares for a mission

The Reconnaissance Avionics Maintainability Program, or RAMP, in the mid-2000s was the last major upgrade to the U-2 cockpit. It included a new avionics processor and the replacement of 1960s-era dials and gauges with multifunction displays.

The work covered by the contract awarded last month will build on RAMP, Thatcher said.

Among the Avionics Tech Refresh upgrades will be an updated suite of avionics meant to modernize the U-2's systems, replacing outmoded components and enabling those systems to work with new technology in the future.

The program will also install a new mission computer that's designed to the US Air Force's open-mission-systems standard, or OMS. The new computer will allow the U-2 to work with systems of differing security levels across air, space, sea, land, and cyber domains.

The work being done now will allow Lockheed to complete future modifications, adding software that will allow systems on the aircraft today be more integrated, share the right data, give pilots a better view of their surroundings, and allow them to share information with other assets — all of which will "really open up that multi-role aspect for how these U-2s can operate in the future," Thatcher said.

A U-2 Dragon Lady pilot drives a high-performance chase car on the runway to catch a U-2 performing a low-flight touch and go at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, March 15, 2019.

A U-2 Dragon Lady pilot drives a high-performance chase car on the runway to catch a U-2 performing a low-flight touch and go at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, March 15, 2019.

Lockheed is still working with the Air Force to develop a concept of operations for the new systems, but the U-2s are on a path that seeks "more modernization vs. just what the current configuration is," Thatcher said, "and that's what the [open missions systems] backbone is really allowing us to do."

Despite the relative youth of the U-2 airframe, many components, especially in the cockpit, are dated. The updates announced on April 9 include new, modern cockpit displays.

The multifunction displays installed under RAMP in the early 2000s use technology dates to the late 1990s and have seen rapid upgrades, Thatcher said.

New displays could bring touch-screen functionality to the cockpit. "Think of it as being able to touch on an iPad ... and it will give them that resolution they need to be able to see some imagery and be able to put more information up in front of them," Thatcher added.

U-2 pilots wear pressurized suits while in flight — otherwise their blood would boil at cruising altitude — and making sure the new screens work with their gloves is one aspect of these upgrades.

"We've got a team that's really partnered with making sure that the pilots are getting what they want ... in order to meet the needs that they have up there," Thatcher said. "So there is a human-factors element ... to all of it."

'Relevant for whatever will come'

Pilots from Beale Air Force Base go through pre-flight checks on a U-2 Dragon Lady during the 2018 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show at MCAS Miramar, California, September 29, 2018

Pilots from Beale Air Force Base go through pre-flight checks on a U-2 Dragon Lady during the 2018 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show at MCAS Miramar, California, September 29, 2018

U-2 pilots have been able to directly support troops on the ground with the multiple radios on the aircraft, but U-2 imagery hasn't flowed to those troops.

With the backbone this round of upgrades aims to build, systems aboard the U-2 could "talk to one another through the common aircraft frame," allowing the U-2 "to be more of a central node," Thatcher said.

This would allow U-2s to distribute information it gathers to commanders and other personnel faster — "that way they can use it in more of a real-time environment," Thatcher added.

That could allow the U-2 to work within the Air Force's Advanced Battle Management System, envisioned as a cross-network and cross-domain command-and-control network. AMBS is still in the experimental phase, with a successful first field test in December, but a second test, set for April, has been delayed.

Putting a U-2 into ABMS as a node could allow it "to talk essentially between a fifth-generation fighter and fourth-generation assets, even talking in a joint all-domain setting too, to be able to get that information down to troops on the ground or ships at sea," Thatcher said.

Lockheed's Enterprise Mission Computer 2, nicknamed the "Einstein Box," included in this round of upgrades, would facilitate that conversation by translating data from different platforms, allowing older aircraft to communicate with newer ones that have different data links. The U-2 has tested this capability before.

Whatever the final form of ABMS may be, the work Lockheed is doing on the U-2 now — particularly the addition of OMS — will set the aircraft and its systems up for rapid testing and integration, Helley said.

"We're able to ... take it from this conceptual design and conceptual testing period straight through demonstration period and then provide the capability to warfighter now. So we're providing that link and the risk-reduction in the near term to prove out what is plausible for the future."

Those near-term demonstrations could help bridge gaps "to make sure that we understand what that end-to-end connection is going to look like in a truly futuristic, ABMS world," Helley said.

With future open-mission system upgrades, Lockheed sees the U-2 flying for another 40 years.

Those upgrades can be "quickly advanced" to ensure the U-2 is "staying at the forefront from a technology standpoint, whether it's supporting the future fight or supporting risk-reduction activities or follow-on platforms or follow-on technology that can be implemented in another asset, whether it's an airborne or sea-borne or a space-borne asset in the future," Thatcher said. "We can make sure that it will continue to be relevant for whatever will come."

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