Spy planes get upgrades

New computers and software installed this month in the Air Force's U-2 reconnaissance planes will enable faster processing of complex mission-planning applications, service officials said.

The high-altitude, single-seat U-2 collects photographic, electro-optic, infrared and radar imagery. A U-2 can conduct up to 500 data-collection missions during a single flight, so keeping its automated mission-planning capabilities up-to-date is a priority.

At the heart of the upgrade is the Mission Planning System V (MPS-V), which produces hard-copy charts and documents for the pilot while enabling crew members on the ground to plan missions in about a quarter of the time it now takes.

The Unix-based system includes a 440 MHz processor module, 512M RAM and four hard drives totaling 118G. It is the first version of MPS to use a 20-inch flat-panel LCD color monitor. Early versions of MPS required multiple shipping pallets for deployment, but MPS-V fits into a rugged transit case and weighs about 70 pounds, said Lt. Col. Christopher King, the MPS program manager.

Using MPS-V, a ground-based navigator receives information about the route and the collection plan for the radar and electro-optical sensors. The navigator uses the software to complete the plan and create a data-transfer disk, which enables the mission to be loaded onto the aircraft's flight computer.

The upgrades, which will cost about $1.2 million, "represent dramatic performance improvements," King said. "The MPS-V, running the latest mission- planning software, operates at 19 times the speed of systems used in 1995."

The MPS-V unit is made by Rugged Portable Systems, a division of Secure Communication Systems Inc., Santa Ana, Calif.

The upgrade also includes software modules integrating the common sensor planner and the aircraft, weapons and electronics software with other mission-planning requirements. The aircraft, weapons and electronics module helps create the initial flight route and enter flight-performance data, such as speed and range, into the flight plan.

The common sensor planner accounts for limitations to the sensors — such as camera range and distance, cloud cover and shadows caused by sunlight or moonlight — and uses the newly created route to determine when and where to turn sensors on or off. "Integration of these modules has been a complex interface management task," Dennis Huggler, U-2 mission planning program manager, said in a written statement.

The same upgrades are planned for other planes, including the B-1 and B-2 bombers and F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.

The U-2, first flown in 1955, was originally a CIA plane and played a vital role during the Cold War, including the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In a 1998 speech, CIA Director George Tenet described the U-2 as "nothing less than a revolution in intelligence."

The Air Force took control of the plane in 1974. The fleet of 35 planes includes four two-seat trainers. The aircraft is 63 feet long, 16 feet high and, according to the Air Force's Web site, can fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet and above and has a range of more than 7,000 miles.

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