LOS ANGELES – Spending money on a new generation of manned reconnaissance planes is certain to be controversial in an era of billion-dollar spy satellites and tight military budgets.
U-2 advocates also expect challenges from others who want to build a new generation of unmanned spy planes. But they say an updated version of the 40-year-old U-2 offers unique advantages.
The program has been code-named U-X and is advanced enough that Lockheed Martin Corp. has done some preliminary designs for the plane at its “Skunk Works” development center in Palmdale, Calif., Lockheed sources said.
The Air Force, sources said, might produce a “mission requirements statement” in the next year that would set in motion the development of a program, although its start could still be years away.
There are U-2s flying over Iraq today – advanced descendants of the famous Cold War spy plane shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960 with pilot Francis Gary Powers aboard.
Powers, convicted by the Soviets of espionage, was released in 1962 in a spy swap. He died in 1977 in the crash of a helicopter he was flying for a Los Angeles television station.
The U-2 was developed in a cloak of secrecy by Lockheed at the Skunk Works in the early 1950s. The first U-2 flight was in 1955, but the public never knew the plane existed until the Powers incident.
The U-2 gave President John F. Kennedy the pictures of Soviet missile sites in Cuba during the crisis of 1962. Versions of the plane have provided intelligence ever since.
The newer versions of the aircraft, the most recent produced in 1989, fly farther and higher than the U-2 piloted by Powers.
While top Air Force officials are said to be pushing hard for a new generation of the spy plane, many in the Pentagon’s intelligence community are wondering why.
Some argue that the U-2’s mission could be performed with satellites, which, from 11,000 miles up in space, now boast technology capable of capturing images of people walking down streets.
The U-X also would get competition from Global Hawk and Dark Star – two high-altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicles now under development. These new craft are expected to be capable of returning high-resolution pictures and other electronic data.
“The replacement of the U-2 would definitely be controversial,” said Owen Cote Jr., associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Most people believe that the U-2 mission can be done with the coming unmanned systems.”
“The onus would be on the person who would want to spend a lot of money on the U-2 to show need,” he added. “It appears most of the people in the Pentagon want to give these unmanned systems a serious shot. If they deliver as promised, I can’t imagine what you would want a U-2 for.”
But Air Force officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the U-X would be capable of flying missions with and without a pilot on board and be far more capable than the UAVs being planned.
With a pilot on board, they said, it would hold the advantage of being able to fly close to areas the Pentagon is seeking to study. Moreover, it could circle over targets for hours and give leaders detailed information that satellites, which only pass a target once every 12 hours, do not.
“It also gives us redundancy,” said one Air Force official. “We don’t have to count on just one system, such as satellites, to gather this type of information.”
The Pentagon, said Tim Lomperis, an expert on U.S. weapons technology at St. Louis University, never “likes to put all its eggs in one basket.”
“There is a real feeling that they need backup systems in case satellites systems are jammed or blacked out,” he said.
Even the youngest of the U-2s is expected to have reached the end of its structural lifespan around 2020.
But the Air Force has been quiet about its plans to replace the U-2 because it already is working toward production of two high-cost aircraft, the F-22 Raptor and the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF.
Congress is still debating how big both programs will be, and talk of an expensive third aircraft could entice some lawmakers to scale back plans for one of the other two planes, something top Air Force officials would like to avoid.
The U-2s available today are single-seat, single-engine aircraft. They have long, wide, straight wings that give the aircraft a glider-like appearance. Its on-board systems are highly classified, but it can carry a variety of sensors and cameras and is considered extremely reliable by the Air Force.
“The old fashioned U-2 that Powers got shot down in just took pictures with wet film,” said Cote from MIT, who specializes in satellites and reconnaissance aircraft. “It was brought back and developed in a darkroom. The current U-2 delivers very high-resolution images with a digital camera and deploys sensors that can operate at night and in any weather.”
Credit: Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU