The Air Force has been struggling of late to determine whether manned or unmanned aircraft are best-suited to generating useful high-altitude intelligence and recon. The answer isn’t so obvious. On the one hand, the service’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for 30 hours, collecting a diverse array of information with its on-board sensors. On the other hand, its U-2S spy plane can fly higher and thus see further, carries a much bigger payload, generates a lot more power, and generally performs better than a drone in bad weather or contested air space. Unmanned aircraft may one day transform aerial combat, but for the time being there are important advantages to having a pilot onboard, even if the plane can’t stay airborne as long as a Global Hawk. After going back and forth for years, the Air Force finally decided it needed both U-2S and Global Hawk for the foreseeable future. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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