The Eyes and Ears of the U-2

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexis Pentzer
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

The U-2 Dragon Lady may climb to 70,000 ft, but it’s the sophisticated sensor, maintained by a team of highly skilled technicians that captures the information vital to Beale’s reconnaissance mission. 

The U-2 provides high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of U.S. and allied forces. It delivers critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict, large-scale hostilities and damage reconnaissance. This is possible by gathering a variety of data through a series of sensors that collect information in imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers.

The sensor shops maintain all of the sensors that the U-2 uses to collect data and prepare it for intelligence analysts to review. The sensor shop is divided into several different sections, each one with a different role: Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System-2 (ASARS-2), Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SYERS), Data Link, Early Warning System (EWS), and SIGINT.

The ASARS-2 radar was originally developed in the early 1980s and is capable of detecting and accurately locating both stationary and moving ground targets; target information is transmitted via a wideband data link to a ground station. The radar is capable of producing extremely high resolution images at long range.

“It’s a radar that uses synthetic aperture techniques to achieve real time high resolution imagery, multimode, all weather, day or night, meaning it has the ability to see through clouds.” said Shane Griego, 99th Reconnaissance Squadron acquisition program manager.

The SYERS is capable of real time high resolution electro-optical imaging. It provides simultaneous literal imagery to both visible and infrared imagery spectrum in 10 different spectral bands. Meaning that SYERS is able to pick up both color and heat signatures, acting almost like a camera.

“It’s like a camera with a highly designed suspension system, kind of like a car.” says Richard Davis, 9th Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) SYERS maintainer. “It’s got springs and shock absorbers so it doesn’t get affected by vibrations. It’s completely isolated from the aircraft so we have to inspect and replace any of those things. For any mission, it gets a mission file that we upload and then it’s ready for the mission. Then we can download the mission data and process it and check for sensor performance.”

The SIGINT system is the ears of the plane. This system detects and collects High Band and Low Band transmissions.

“SIGINT can be broken down into two categories: Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT),” said Shareem Jones, 9th AMXS Northrop Grumman Airborne SIGINT site lead. “COMINT is an intelligence-gathering activity that focuses on intercepting and analyzing communications between people or groups to gain insight into the activities of foreign powers and other adversaries. COMINT focuses on low band transmissions such as telephone conversations, encrypted messages, and wireless transmissions. ELINT focuses on collecting and analyzing non-communication, high band emissions such as radar, radio frequency receiver systems, telemetry devices, sensors, and satellite beacon systems. By intercepting COMINT and ELINT transmissions, intelligence agencies can gain access to valuable information that can help them in their mission.”

The data link is a primary mission equipment (PME) system that works with the sensors and is used to send real time data from the plane to the defense ground station on base. All of the information that is gathered through the different systems is encrypted and is sent through the data link from the aircraft, up to a satellite, and then to the ground.

“The Pylon Equipment Group, commonly known as PEG, houses a segment of the G3 AMA data link communication system,” said Michael Langley, 9th AMXS L3Harris data link maintainer. “This system facilitates the transmission of all sensor data from the U2 aircraft to a ground station through satellite connectivity. In addition to satellite communication, the U2 maintains the ability to use Line of Sight communication directly to a ground station antenna. This can be accomplished via either the ALOS (Aft Line of Sight) or FLOS (Forward Line of Sight) antenna.”

The Electronic Warfare System is able to warn the mission pilot of different threats and capabilities that may be out there. This PME system enhances the survivability of the entire aircraft, protecting, displaying and jamming radio frequencies.

“For decades, the U-2’s longest enduring quality for surviving any type of attack was its altitude,” Griego said. “This Electronic Warfare System is all electronic so it’s able to jam anything that might be threatening coming its way.”

These sensor shops are an integral part of the U-2 mission. The sensors and the technicians maintaining them are the starting point of the overall mission we all have a part in at Beale AFB. Sensor shop technicians work tirelessly and collectively to ensure that the U-2 Dragon Lady’s eyes and ears function flawlessly during missions.