Wars have come and gone. But for more than half a century, the CIA and U.S. military have relied on a skinny sinister-looking black jet to go deep behind enemy lines for vital intelligence-gathering missions.
The high-flying U-2 spy plane was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the iron curtain and, as engineers said, snap “picture postcards for Ike” of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union.
And although the plane is perhaps best known for being shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and the subsequent capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 continues to play a critical role in national security today, hunting Al Qaeda forces in the Middle East. The aging cold warrior once slated for retirement in 2015 may fight on into the next decade.
The fleet of 33 spycraft was supposed to be replaced in the next few years with RQ-4 Global Hawks, the high-tech drones that have been part of the Air Force since 2001. But this week the Pentagon proposed delaying the U-2’s retirement as part of Defense Department cutbacks.
At an estimated cost of $176 million each, the Global Hawk drone had “priced itself out of the niche, in terms of taking pictures in the air,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at a Thursday news conference. “That’s a disappointment for us, but that’s the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment.”
The Pentagon has determined that operating the U-2 would be cheaper for the foreseeable future; it won’t disclose how much operating the U-2s will cost for security reasons. The government has relied on the U-2 since 1955, when the aircraft was first built and designed under tight security by Lockheed Corp. at its famed Skunk Works facilities in Burbank headed by legendary chief engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.
“It’s incredible to think that these planes are flying,” said Francis Gary Powers Jr., Powers’ son and founder of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. “You’d think another spy plane, or satellite or drone would come along by now to replace it.”
Lockheed, now Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., boasts on its website that the U-2, which naysayers said “could not be built and would last a few years,” continues to play a critical role in national security.
Flying a nearly six-decade-old plane may sound risky, but the military’s U-2s are regularly “rebuilt, redone and retrofitted,” said Dianne Knippel, a Lockheed spokeswoman. Each of the nation’s 33 U-2s get refurbished at Lockheed’s new Skunk Works facility in Palmdale.
Since 1994, the Air Force said, at least $1.7 billion has been invested to modernize the U-2 airframe. These upgrades also include new engines, new cockpits and, of course, new cameras and sensors.
Today, the U-2 is flying more missions and is involved in more operations than ever, said Staff Sgt. Heidi Davis, an Air Force spokeswoman. Since 2003, the Air Force has flown more than 95,000 hours in the U-2 providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The U-2 supports the boots on the ground using its various sensors and cameras to relay information to the requesting war fighting units,” she said. “Specific missions conducted by the U-2 will not be discussed due to operational security.”
Few U-2 missions are ever discussed. The former chief of Lockheed’s Skunk Works facility, Ben Rich, gave a few details in his book “Skunk Works.” In it, he wrote about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when Russians were found delivering ballistic missiles to Cuba.
The CIA was flying a U-2 above Cuba when it discovered a missile site. President Kennedy wanted to know, “How do we know these sites are being manned?” Rich wrote. The CIA showed the president a picture taken from a U-2 at 72,000 feet. It showed a worker using an outdoor latrine.
“The picture was so clear you could see that guy reading a newspaper,” Rich wrote.
Most of the U-2’s capabilities are classified, but analysts say its newest sensors enable the U-2 to listen in on cellphone and radio conversations and pinpoint the location of the caller on the ground. Some can even “smell” the air and sniff out chemical plumes emanating from a potential underground nuclear laboratory.
The U-2, nicknamed Dragon Lady, has been successful spying on other countries, but not because it’s stealthy — countries often know that it’s flying overhead at more than 70,000 feet. At that height, few countries have the capability to blast it out of the sky.
But it has happened. The Powers incident proved that.
That’s part of the reason the Pentagon thought the remotely piloted Global Hawk would be a good replacement. Global Hawks, made in Palmdale by Northrop Grumman Corp., have been part of the U.S. arsenal since their first flight in 1998, carrying out humanitarian, scientific and combat missions.
There are various versions of the drone, including one for the Navy. The Air Force has 20 active Global Hawks and had planned to buy dozens more to replace the U-2s. But that plan is on hold, pending approval from Congress.
Northrop lashed out at this week’s Pentagon plan, saying the U-2 needs to be replaced. In a statement, the company said the U-2 “places pilots in danger, has limited flight duration and provides limited sensor capacity.”
Thirty-three pilots have died in U-2 operations, including pilots from Lockheed, the CIA and the Air Force.
To fly a U-2, pilots must, like astronauts, don a 35-pound yellow pressure suit to protect themselves from rapid decompression at high altitudes.
It helps stop nitrogen from forming bubbles in their blood and bringing on decompression sickness, known as the bends. To eat, they ingest meals like chicken a la king and beef gravy in tubes through their space suits.
Pilots are trained near Sacramento at Beale Air Force Base, where the U-2s are based.
Typically each year, 18 new pilots go through the 10-month course. At the same base, the Air Force is training about 60 new Global Hawk pilots a year.
“They might want to start training more U-2 pilots,” said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute, who estimated that the earliest the U-2 would be retired is 2023. “There’s still a lot of fight in that aircraft.”
Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.