The United States Air Force (USAF) is seeking to retire its aging line of Lockheed U-2 spy planes as soon as 2019 but this leaves a noticeable hole in the service's conventional high-altitude tactical reconnaissance section - the only other viable alternative remains the expensive Northrop Grumman RQ-4 "Global Hawk" line. In response, Lockheed has drawn up plans for the "TR-X", a stealth-minded unmanned air vehicle to take the place of the storied U-2 in the USAF inventory. The new air vehicle will be developed along the same mission lines as the U-2 - namely Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (IRS) missions - and operate at altitudes around 70,000 feet to steer clear of most enemy air defenses and interceptors.
It is expected that the design will carry the same (or similar) powerplant as the outgoing U-2, making it subsonic in flight, and stealth features proven on other Lockheed products (including the F-22 and F-35 aircraft) will heavily influence the overall design of the aircraft. Current conceptual artwork showcases a black design form with swept-back wing mainplanes, outward-cranked tail fins, and a dorsal intake set aft of the nose. All mission equipment will be held internally with a modular payload capability being built-in. Support for existing U-2 and RQ-4 equipment will also play into the new design.
As it stands, Lockheed foresees an initial batch of thirty TR-X unmanned stealth aircraft to succeed the U-2 in USAF service (the new product will also threaten the competing unmanned RQ-4 which is a conventional - non-stealthy- design). The TR-X foray by Lockheed marks its first entry into the realm of unmanned stealth aircraft since the cancelled RQ-3 "Darkstar" (detailed elsewhere on this site). Early modest estimates call for about $3.8 billion in spending to bring the TR-X about.
It remains a realistic prospect that the U-2 will continue in operational service into the 2020s despite the expected 2019 retirement date.
All presented figures showcased below are pure estimates on the part of the author and based on current U-2 capabilities.
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