USAF U-2S completes first flight after avionics upgrade

In partnership with Lockheed Martin’s coveted Skunk Works division, the USAF has completed the first flight of an upgraded U-2S Dragon Lady as part of the high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft’s ongoing Avionics Tech Refresh (ATR) programme.

This initial flight tested a range of new advanced capabilities on the U-2S, including an updated avionics suite, a new open mission systems (OMS) standard mission computer, and modern cockpit displays. The ATR modernisation looks set to make the U-2S the USAF’s first fully OMS-compliant fleet, while the OMS-compliant computer promises to allow the air arm to install the latest version of Raytheon’s Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS), the ASARS-2C.

The first USAF U-2S Dragon Lady to complete the ATR upgrade process gets airborne for the first time.
The first USAF U-2S Dragon Lady to complete the ATR upgrade process gets airborne for the first time. Lockheed Martin

Sean Thatcher, the U-2 ATR program manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, said: “The successful first flight of the U-2 [ATR] is a significant moment in our journey to rapidly and affordably field new capabilities. Leveraging the platform’s open architecture, we’re expediting these capabilities needed for the future Joint All-Domain Operations battlespace.”

The ATR and ASARS upgrades are scheduled to complete flight testing in the first half of 2024, with the first two ASARS-2C radars expected to enter service in July, next year. Worth $50m in total, the U-2 ATR contract was awarded by the USAF in 2020. Despite the $50m ATR upgrade, the USAF still currently plans to retire its U-2 fleet – comprising 27 U-2S mission aircraft and four TU-2S trainers – by the end of FY26, with the 11 RQ-4B Global Hawks following in FY27. This will leave the USAF without a publicly acknowledged air-breathing high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.