"At any given moment, day or night, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a U-2, one of the most significant reconnaissance aircraft in history, is airborne somewhere in the world flying an operational reconnaissance mission producing ISR for the warfighter on the ground."
The US Air Force has established a new U-2S operating location at RAF Fairford in the UK, with two aircraft now flying from the base. The vulnerable U-2S Dragon Lady is the US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft born from the Cold War and has soldiered on for many decades that it refuses to die. It has taken part in virtually every major US military operation and has provided reliable and important signals, communications, electronic and image intelligence for the battlefield. With all these missions, the U-2 can almost appear a completely different aircraft depending on what unique mission fit is required. Potential successors have come and gone and now under the us department of defense’s FY 2021 budget request, this elegant high altitude spy plane has survived the axe at the cost of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk which was a supposed replacement.
In late September 2019, U-2S serial 80-1071 from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS) arrived at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire from its temporary deployed base at Al Dhafra, in the United Arab Emirates. Fairford is a regular stop-off for U-2s heading to and from the United States for aircraft swaps and maintenance, but on this occasion the ‘Dragon Lady’ stayed. It soon became clear that this was no transient measure, and that the ‘Dragon Lady’ presence was becoming more of a permanent measure. Unlike typical transit flights, the aircraft arrived in a full mission configuration. The Senior Ruby configuration includes the airborne satcom antenna dorsal teardrop system, which is able to relay data in real time and provide signals intelligence collection data beyond line of sight. It was also carrying the ASARS-2 (Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System), mounted inside the elongated nose. ASARS-2 consists of a pair of advanced electronically scanned array sideways-looking radar antennas mounted on each side of the U-2s elongated nose. This system takes high-fidelity radar imagery of the battleground out to around 100 miles on either side of the aircraft's position. Seeing as the U-2 often operates just outside of an enemy's borders, being able to fly an orbit in either direction while collecting radar data is key. As well as this the ASARS-2 can see through bad weather and in some cases smoke, something that optical cameras have trouble with.
In early November, this 80-1071 flew its first mission from Fairford using the callsign ‘Peppy 01’. This mission lasted approximately eight hours, but the the route and intended points of interest are unknown. In the same timeframe , a second U-2S serial 68-10337 arrived at Fairford and it has since been used for pilot proficiency, flying local training missions which generally consist of between 6-10 touch and go’s. It is thought that the 99th ERS has relocated its U-2 deployment location to the UK, either temporarily or maybe even permanently, from Al Dhafra. The unit’s Global Hawks appear to have remained at the UAE base.
“We have the ability to have different sensors on the aircraft to take different types of images, we have synthetic aperture radar, multi spectral and we have just a wet film camera which produces a high resolution photo where we can cover a significant amount of ground. From that they can process that film and then for weeks can task certain missions from that single wet film image which is all processed back at Beale once back on the ground.”
The U-2 has a long tradition of deployments and permanent basing in the UK. In 1995, the long-standing U-2 detachment at RAF Alconbury in Cambridgeshire moved to RAF Fairford and was know as Operating Location - UK (OL-UK). The reasons for the latest move are unknown, but for the time being at the ‘Dragon Lady’ has a new lair and its great to see them operating in the skies above the UK again.