What do the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Libyan operation have in common? The answer is the presence of the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Without fanfare and with little acknowledgement the U-2 has been conducting critical intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions for more than 60 years. The U-2 has supported every major recent U.S. military operation including the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. Even before the U.N. had passed resolution 1973, U-2s were conducting surveillance missions along the Libyan coast.
Before the advent of surveillance satellites, the U-2 was essential to our ability to monitor Cold War threats. Even after the U.S. deployed space-based assets, the U-2 continued to provide a vital service. Operating at the edge of the atmosphere but well below the altitude of surveillance satellites, the U-2 could conduct missions which required operating closer to its target. Moreover, unlike satellites, the U-2 does not fly a predictable path; U.S. adversaries find it much harder to hide their activities from manned surveillance systems. The U-2’s payloads can be switched out and new ones developed, something that cannot be done for an orbiting satellite. Together the U-2 and space-based systems provide a highly effective complementary suite of capabilities.
The U-2 continues to provide unique capabilities that serve as important adjuncts to the array of other U.S. ISR systems. The three primary advantages of the U-2 are its ability to operate at extremely high altitudes, its very large payload (4,000 lbs.) and the fact that it is manned. Because it flies so high, the U-2 sensors can cover an enormous swathe of the Earth’s surface. Altitude also enables the U-2 to look over mountains and deep into valleys where adversaries like to hide things. Being a manned system, the U-2 also can operate in some contested environments where jamming or low-altitude SAMs can interfere with other forms of reconnaissance. Finally, the U-2 has tremendous payload flexibility that can be applied for special missions or where unique, large payloads are involved.
Today, the Air Force is deploying an impressive set of ISR assets. Along with the National Reconnaissance Office, the Air Force is preparing to launch a new generation of electro-optical and signals intelligence satellites. In addition, the Air Force is building and operating a fleet of long-range, high altitude Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. The Global Hawk has a range of more than 11,000 miles and can stay aloft for more than 30 hours. Then there is the U-2 which complements both satellites and the Global Hawk by lifting large, replaceable payloads into a unique altitude band.
The U-2 is a unique Air Force and national asset. Because of a relatively recent upgrade, it has another 30 years of useful life. But inexplicably, the Air Force’s current plan is to eliminate all the U-2s by 2015 without having made any provisions for a replacement system. This would reduce the total number of platforms available for high-altitude, long-range ISR at a time when the needs for intelligence appear to be growing. It would also deprive the U.S. of the ability to fly unique payloads and conduct specialized missions. The Air Force needs to develop a long-range plan for maintaining the U-2 fleet while also investing in the other critical ISR capabilities.
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