The Air Force Wants to Replace the U-2 with a Drone Program It Tried to Kill

Make way for the Global Hawk.

Mar 19 2014, 11:00am
The U-2 Image: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy

Born in the ‘50s, the Lockheed U-2 plane outlasted the Soviet Union, remained more precise than apt-to-drift satellites, and was able to outperform the Global Hawk reconnaissance drone that was built to replace it. But as the costs of operating the drones have come down and the armed forces overall are facing budget cuts, the Cold-War-era, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft will likely be retired.

It’s the second iconic airplane, along with the A-10, to face the ax in favor of heirs that are neither better equipped for the mission, nor cheaper than the airplane being replaced.

Nevertheless, the future for the Department of Defense looks like drones, even if those drones aren’t ready. The Global Hawk drone was developed after 9/11, but enthusiasm for the project waned as it ran over budget . For several years the Air Force tried to de-fund the program and be rid of the Global Hawk altogether. Now it's giving it high-altitude reconnaissance.

According to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel , “DoD had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues. But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs. With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future.”

In 2012, flying the Global Hawk or the U-2 cost roughly $32,000 per flight hour. However, by last year, the cost of flying the Global Hawk had dropped to $24,000 per flight hour, according to an intelligence official who spoke to Stars and Stripes. He said the program will cost $3.7 billion over the next five years, $500 million more than it would have cost to keep flying U-2s.

But the Air Force seems to be betting that the future is in UAVs, not in airplanes designed in the 1950s. Eventually, the Global Hawk’s operating costs will drop enough to make this decision viable. “It is not going to be in the next five to 10 years but we plan on keeping the Global Hawk a long time—it could be flying for 50 to 60 years,” Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Mary Danner-Jones said.

The Global Hawk waiting for the U-2 to get out of the way. Image: Bobby Cummings/USAF

The budget that the Pentagon submitted last year included a plan to kill off the Global Hawk program, as Air Force officials insisted that the U-2 was a cheaper, more capable option. It has a higher ceiling than the Global Hawk (70,000 feet compared to 55,000), can carry 67 percent more payload, and is less vulnerable to a cyber attack, because it's being controlled by a person in a cockpit rather than relying on a satellite connection, according to a U-2 defending post at Forbes.

One of the initial expenses associated with moving from U-2s to Global Hawks will be figuring out just what the Global Hawks can do. The fiscal 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law by Obama on January 17, allotted $10 million to study whether the U-2’s sensors, particularly the SYERS-2A camera, could be installed on the Global Hawk .

The Global Hawk’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, wants to build a “universal payload adapter,” which would take the cameras and other sensor equipment straight from the U-2 and attach it to the Global Hawk. Developing it would cost about $487 million and take about three years, according to Air Force documents, and another two years to produce. The Air Force has said it isn’t interested in that.

By all accounts, it’s sort of a miracle that the Lockheed U-2 spy plane has stayed in use as long as it has. Even when you consider that it got a thorough rebuild at the cusp of the 1980s, the U-2 has always been a weird bird. While flying at the extreme altitudes that it specialized in, the U-2 had a very narrow range of speeds that it could travel at—a “coffin corner” of just 10 knots. Any slower and the plane would stall; any faster and the pilot risked structural damage.

Of the first 60 U-2s rolled out of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” facility in Burbank in the 1950s and ‘60s, more than 40 were believed to be lost through hostile fire and accidents . This includes one lost over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and one flown by Gary Powers that was shot down while flying over the Soviet Union in May 1960.

It’s strange how quickly fortune reverses in the world of defense contractors and spending cuts. “Last year, we were going to keep the U-2s and retire or shrinkwrap the Global Hawks,’’ Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale told the Air Force Times. Now, “the operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30 have come down. It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk. We’ll keep them and gradually retire the U-2s.”

If the budget request is approved, the Air Force’s 33-plane U-2 fleet will start being retired in 2015, and the plane will be completely out of service by 2016, when, hopefully, the Global Hawk will be ready.