Why Are We Still Using Spy Planes?

One of the Air Force’s U-2 spy planes crashed into a South Korean car-repair shop yesterday, injuring three people on the ground. In the age of satellites, why is the American military still using the 48-year-old U-2 for its aerial surveillance needs?

Today’s U-2s are much improved over the version that Francis Gary Powers piloted into infamy in 1960, when he was felled by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Lockheed has steadily increased the U-2’s wingspan, fuel capacity, and engine power, as well as the sensitivity of onboard sensors that detect incoming hazards. The latest crop of U-2s, which were built in the 1980s, are reported to fly well above 70,000 feet, although the exact altitude ceiling is classified. In any event, not a single U-2 has been gunned down in the post-Cold War era.

The U-2 is notoriously difficult to pilot, a fact that has earned it the nickname “Dragon Lady”; there are only about 50 pilots qualified to handle the craft, not to mention endure 10 hours in a fully pressurized flight suit. Yet the U-2 is still a lot more reliable than Lockheed’s other celebrated spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, which was officially retired in 1993. The Blackbird wowed with its sleek looks and Mach 3 speed, but it was a royal pain to operate. It leaked fuel on takeoff, guzzled gas midflight, and required extra-long runways for takeoff; nearly all Blackbird missions originated from domestic air bases, where the sensitive planes could be lovingly tended. The U-2, by contrast, is a less fickle machine and can be deployed from virtually any runway.

Satellites have often been proposed as an alternative to U-2s, since no enemy projectile can reach into space. But because they’re virtual slaves to their orbits, satellites cannot circle over a specific target. And foes with even middling intelligence can usually figure out when American satellites are passing overhead and cease suspicious activity during those times. That’s why the military continues to rely heavily on U-2s, particularly in combat situations. A Defense Week source estimated that during the Gulf War, U-2s provided 90 percent of targeting information to American ground forces, and that during the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, 80 percent of the surveillance shots were provided by U-2s.

The U-2’s latest rival is the Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumann. Though the Air Force has made clear its desire to keep its U-2s flying until 2020, there are concerns that the current fleet will show its age well before that deadline, and that it will become harder to recruit competent pilots. But the Global Hawk’s debut hasn’t exactly knocked anyone’s socks off. Of the six that have been built so far, three have crashed; the survivors are currently grounded. The Global Hawk’s $50-million-per-plane price tag is also irking some Congresscritters, who say that initial cost projections were around $10 million. A U-2 costs about $53 million.

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Explainer thanks Patrick Garrett of globalsecurity.org.