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Air Force holds off on retiring famed reconnaissance plane


The 1960 U-2 incident ...

Most Americans weren't aware of the U-2 and its mission until May, 1960, when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers' aircraft was shot down while on a reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. Powers was captured, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used the incident to embarrass the United States (which initially claimed it was a weather flight) and torpedo a Paris summit meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Here are three Universal newsreel accounts of the incident:

May 16, 1960: Soviets display wreckage of U-2; Paris summit meeting fails.

May 23, 1960: The United Nations debate on the incident.

August 18, 1960: Francis Gary Powers goes on trial in Moscow; President Eisenhower comments.

Read a State Department history of the U-2 and the 1960 incident here.

Related story: U-2s challenge pilots’ endurance in the air

It was born during the Cold War more than 50 years ago, and the Air Force deems it the world’s toughest plane to fly. But the high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane is so valued for its intelligence-gathering capabilities that, even in an age of high-tech unmanned drones, the old spy plane has found a whole new mission over the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U-2 reconnaissance plane’s mission is changing. The new mission amounts to a landmark shift in how the venerable aircraft can be used: The U-2 now gives direct support to ground operations, including assisting troops in firefights.

Unmanned drones can “look” — get pictures of the battlefield. But so far, they can’t “listen” — eavesdrop electronically.

The U-2 does both.

“There’s a significant demand for the U-2 downrange in both areas of operation,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Kirt Stallings, who commands the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron from a base in Southwest Asia. “We’ve made a shift to counterinsurgency operations.”

The U-2’s role is so vital that Congress has told the Air Force to hold off on plans to retire it until an unmanned drone now in testing and development proves it can replace the U-2 Dragon Lady.

The U-2 is famous in part for the pictures it captured of Soviet missiles in Cuba, intelligence that became central in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It’s best known for that kind of strategic intelligence gathering that’s so valuable to national command authorities.

But the current war zones have the U-2 plenty busy supporting ground operations.

“We’ve become much more tactically oriented as opposed to the strategic type of mission that the U-2 flew for many decades,” Stallings said. “We do have daily flights in Afghanistan now. It’s where the fight is.”

For example, the U-2 can take pictures of wide swaths of terrain; spot and track enemy movements; and warn of an impending attack.

And it can help troops in a shootout. “They’re in a fight, and there’s a ridgeline in front of those guys, and they want to see what’s on the other side.

We just take a picture so they can see what’s on the other side. We’re finding the enemy for them,” Stallings said.

The U-2’s replacement would be a version of the existing RQ-4B Global Hawk fitted to take pictures and pick up enemy communications and other electronic signals.

The Global Hawk “has the potential to do all that but … it still isn’t quite up to the skill set yet because it’s a new airplane,” said Air Force Maj. Colby Kuhns, of the Air Force’s High Altitude Transition Team.

The Air Force currently has 32 U-2s in its active inventory. The U-2’s main operating base is Beale Air Force Base, Calif., home of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. Overseas, U-2s are deployed to three forward-operating locations.

The Air Force in 2005 announced plans to retire the U-2 by 2011.

But that triggered concerns that military commanders and other decision-makers might be left without key intelligence data.

“Congress directed that we not retire the U-2 unless we consulted with them,” said Air Force Col. David M. Sullivan, chief of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Collection Capabilities Division.

“We will make the decision,” Sullivan said, “when the Global Hawk has proven itself in combat and that it is meeting the combatant commanders’ needs for intelligence collection.”

Once the necessary Global Hawk eavesdropping gadgetry is developed, it will be “retrofitted” onto existing Global Hawk airframes, Kuhns said.

The retrofitted Global Hawk variant might begin flying in a war zone sometime in 2011, Sullivan said, but no firm timetable can be set until testing and development is further along.

Meanwhile, the U-2 continues in its traditional strategic and other roles in such places as South Korea, where the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron flies out of Osan Air Base. There, a wall inside a hangar bears the Cold War-era motto of the squadron’s parent unit, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing: “In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor.”

It’s a motto that reflects the Cold War strategic mission that still applies in South Korea, said Lt. Col. Spencer S. Thomas, the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron’s commander.

The target for the U-2’s retirement is “currently” 2012, the Air Force said.

But even after those first Global Hawks are on the ground downrange, both they and U-2s will continue flying missions during the same period, Sullivan said.

“Just because the Global Hawk shows up on a base around the world doesn’t mean the U-2 is going to stop flying the next day,” he said.


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