Russian and Chinese Satellites Are Helping U.S. Pilots Spy on Russia and China

A U-2 Dragon Lady awaits for 9th Maintenance Group airmen to attach wheels to the aircraft Sept. 5 at Beale Air Force Base, California. 

A U-2 Dragon Lady awaits for 9th Maintenance Group airmen to attach wheels to the aircraft Sept. 5 at Beale Air Force Base, California.  Tristan D. Viglianco/Air Force

U-2 pilots are wearing watches that connect to foreign satellites, giving them backup navigation when GPS is jammed.

American U-2 spy plane pilots, who have long flown bleeding-edge technology to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, have a new high-tech gadget: a watch that receives satellite navigation coordinates from Russian, Chinese, and European satellites.

It serves as a backup to U.S. Global Positioning System satellites, in case their signal becomes unavailable.

“My U-2 guys fly with a watch now that ties into GPS, but also BeiDou and the Russian [GLONASS] system and the European [Galileo] system so that if somebody jams GPS, they still get the others,” Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, said Wednesday at a McAleese and Associates conference in Washington.

The general mentioned the watch as an example of building redundancies into military equipment.

While Holmes did not name the watch manufacturer, the Air Force purchased 100 Garmin D2 Charlie navigation watches back in February 2018. 

“Designed with pilots of varying backgrounds and missions, the D2 Charlie aviator watch features a colorful, dynamic moving map which depicts airports, navaids, roads, bodies of water, cities and more, offering greater situational awareness,” the watchmaker said in a statement at the time. “When the D2 Charlie is paired with Garmin Connect on a connected mobile device, pilots can view weather radar on top of the map display relative to flight plan information.”

For more than a half century, the U-2 has been the Air Force’s premier high-altitude surveillance aircraft, flying more than 70,000 feet above the Earth.

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