Are the Gloves Finally Off for the Dragon Lady?

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For the first time in as long as I can remember going to defense shows (nearly 15 years), Lockheed Martin is holding a briefing next week on the U-2S, the latest model of the high-flying spy aircraft, at the annual Air Force Association conference in Orlando.

The company has predominantly put its stock and talent at air shows and defense symposiums into handling the ongoing questions related to its controversial and multinational F-35 program. The issue there is to continue a drum beat of messaging to support the F-35, which is constantly being hit by detractors -- foreign and domestic.

The U-2 business, exclusive to the U.S., has long been viewed by many in the company as being on cruise control. Even in the height of the Air Force's support for the rival Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk, Lockheed generally sat quietly in the public arena while media buzz compared the younger, less capable unmanned aerial system (UAS) to the venerable U-2. Despite the Global Hawk's superior endurance at 24 hr. or more, Lockheed executives opted not to get into the public fight of whether U-2 or Global Hawk would prevail as the Air Force's workhorse, high-altitude, standoff ISR collector. As of the last couple of years, the so-called Dragon Lady had done just that, as the Air Force abruptly reversed its support for Global Hawk and pushed for retiring it. 

Lately, however, that seems to be changing. And, I wonder if that is a reflection of a renewed threat posed to the U-2 as the Pentagon finalizes details on the fiscal 2015-19 budget, which will be rolled out March 4.

Last month,we exclusively reported (subscribers only) that the Office of the Secretary of Defense was considering abandoning support of an Air Force plan to prematurely shelve the Global Hawk, allowing for its funding to bolster upgrades to the U-2. Perhaps Lockheed has opted to go on the offensive and make the case to the press about the attributes of the aircraft.

Perhaps, the Dragon Lady will breathe some fire into the debate.

By contrast, a Northrop Grumman official says the company is expecting to have a "low-key" presence at the show; this, after a long history of offering Global Hawk updates for more than a decade anywhere a journalist is likely to be trolling.

The Air Force Association's Annual Winter Symposium in Feb. 19-21 in Orlando and check our website periodically for up-to-date news from the show.

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