The Dragon Lady shuddered violently in the turbulence over the Hindu Kush.
Air Force Maj. Jerry Lavely grabbed the yoke of the U-2 spy plane, an aircraft slender to the point of flimsy-looking but some 50 years old, then guided it to calmer air. About 12 miles below, U.S. and allied forces were under fire, facing unexpectedly stiff resistance from a larger-than-expected group of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. Lavely was sent up to help figure out where the bad guys were and how to hit them.
It was one of the first times the U-2 had been called upon to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for troops under attack. Though eight U.S. troops were killed and dozens injured during Operation Anaconda in March 2002, the U-2 helped provide real-time information — then and throughout the war in Afghanistan.
Now, the Air Force, in its spending pitch to Congress, wants to do something that no enemy could — ground the entire fleet of 32 U-2s.
At a time of diminished spending, the Air Force calls replacing the U-2 with the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle, a budget move.
Lavely, who retired in 2011 as a lieutenant colonel and now lives in St. Petersburg, said he sees both sides of the argument but insists there are still things the U-2 can do that the Global Hawk cannot.
“We have an experienced pilot inside the cockpit, interacting with the troops on the ground, watching guys,” he says. “When the situation is the most chaotic, that is when the pilot interaction pays the biggest dividends for the troops on the ground.”
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The U-2 was a product of the Cold War, created in the wake of the Soviet Union’s detonation of a hydrogen bomb, its unveiling of a new long-range bomber and fears that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would attack the U.S.
President Dwight Eisenhower needed a stealthy way to find out what the Soviets were up to and the U-2 was born.
On May 1, 1960, it became a household name, when the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers. Two years later, a U-2 discovered Soviet missile sites on Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Though projected to have a two-year operational life, the U-2 outlasted the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and even the Soviet Union as it continued to fly around the world, serving in every U.S. military operation since then, according to Lockheed Martin.
Now flying a combined 17,000 hours per year, the U-2s could last until 2050, says Lockheed Martin. And they aren’t your grandfather’s spy planes either, the company says. The Dragon Lady been upgraded over the past 15 years with new engines, radar, sensors, cameras and defense systems.
Still, the Air Force wants to mothball the U-2, along with other aircraft like the close-support A-10 Thunderbolt II, as a way to save money.
The flying branch took a zigzag course to reach this conclusion. Just a few years ago, it argued that upgrading the Global Hawk to replace the U-2 would be too expensive.
The Block 30 version of the Global Hawk “priced itself out of the niche of taking pictures in the air,” then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at a media roundtable interview two years ago. “That’s a disappointment to us. We had hoped to replace the U-2 with the Global Hawk, but the Global Hawk became expensive.”
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Fast forward two years and now Pentagon officials are saying the Global Hawk will do the job and save money.
But how much is up in the air.
Air Force officials say that over the next five years, the Global Hawk will cost $2.2 billion less to operate than the U-2. But it will cost $1.9 billion over the next decade to upgrade the Global Hawk to “bring it up to parity” with the U-2 in its capacity to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or what the military calls ISR, says Air Force Maj. Mary Danner-Jones.
Monday afternoon, Danner-Jones could not say what the net savings would be.
But the rationale for the Global Hawk, Air Force officials say, is that it “finally started to demonstrate it costs less to operate per hour, and more than a little less.”
The estimate is a savings of $8,000 per hour off the $32,000-per-hour cost of the U-2.
U-2 pilots like Lavely say having a pilot in the cockpit, listening to the radio calls from combat troops on the ground, is a decided advantage, allowing the jet to quickly put its sensor package on targets when troops are in contact with the enemy or in a combat search and rescue situation.
The Air Force says it is “not doing that yet with the Global Hawk. Not that it cannot do it.”
At the Global Hawk’s maximum altitude, 60,000 feet according to manufacturer, Northrup Grumman, a remote operator can see as much on the ground as a U-2 pilot can, according to the Air Force.
And there are no technological barriers to those operators reacting dynamically when Global Hawk is in the air, the Air Force added.
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Still, Jeff Jungeman, who flew U-2s and was the former director of operations in the 99th RS/U-2 squadron, says pilots offer greater flexibility. He recalls one mission that was saved because the pilot used his own GPS device.
Another factor, says Jungeman, is the navigability of the U-2.
He recalls flying in an area of Afghanistan with a Global Hawk operated from back in the U.S.
“I could fly a much tighter pattern. You could tell he was not looking out a window. It was so painful to watch. He was making his best effort at getting around, but he had to get out of the way.”
Weather and the operating in contested airspace are two other major concerns, says Richard L. Aboulafia, a vice president for the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense industry market analysis firm.
“There are many circumstances that the Global Hawk just can’t fly in right now,” says Aboulafia, who advises aerospace companies and financial institutions. “They can’t fly in seriously bad weather. The U-2 can fly in anything.”
The Air Force, which already flies the Global Hawk in the turbulent Pacific region, will begin testing the Global Hawk in Japan during the typhoon season, says Danner-Jones, adding that the proposed budget calls for improvements like weather radar, ice shape testing, and an engine upgrade “to provide better weather tolerance.”
When it comes to fixed-wing aircraft, the U.S. has owned the skies above Afghanistan the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom. But the war is winding down and there is plenty of need for high-altitude spy planes where the enemy has robust anti-aircraft systems. Aboulafia questions whether the Global Hawk can operate in contested airspace.
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The Global Hawk doesn’t have the defensive capabilities of the U-2, “nor is one currently deemed necessary for its contributions in combat,” Maj. Danner-Jones says.
Neither option meets the service’s long-term goals for providing intelligence under heavy opposition, she said.
Northrop Grumman says the Global Hawk “has proven its ability to deliver unsurpassed ISR in any situation – combat, humanitarian and scientific – bringing to bear leading-edge technology in all imaginable conditions,” says company spokeswoman Rene Freeland.
Air Force officials say they want to ground the U-2 by 2016.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, whose district includes the U-2’s home base, agrees the Global Hawk will one day equal the U-2 but he insists the Dragon Lady won’t be mothballed for many years.
“In my view, I don’t believe that is going to happen soon,” Garamendi says.
Aboulafia with the Teal Group says the Air Force should keep the Dragon Lady flying. Unmanned aerial vehicles, he said, have their limitations.
“I would keep the U-2, pure and simple. The Air Force isn’t saving that much money by replacing them. In so many ways, the UAV story as a piloted aircraft replacement is massively oversold.”
Retired pilot Lavely from St. Petersburg says he just wants to make sure troops get what they need.
“Every five to 10 years, this budget debate comes up about the value of the U-2 versus Global Hawk and when arguments are made to kill the U-2 program, its value ... wins out,” he says. “The important thing is for the supported warfighters to get the capabilities they need to be successful.”