In recent years, the Air Force has been in a mad scramble to retire the venerable U-2 spy plane.
Despite constant upgrades over its 50-year operational history--and impressive intelligence collection capabilities--the "Dragon Lady" was deemed ready for the Boneyard, clearing the way for the unmanned Global Hawk.
As the Air Force reasoned, the UAV could not only fly longer missions, it also eliminated the need for expensive "extras," including the extensive training and life-support system needed for U-2 pilots and their high-altitude missions. So, with an opportunity to save millions of dollars, with minimal impact on intelligence gathering, the USAF began planning for the U-2's retirement.
But, as Aviation Week reports, the projected phase-out of the U-2 keeps getting pushed back. Initially, the service hoped to start retiring the Dragon Lady in 2007, but that schedule was soon scrapped. Current plans call for retiring the U-2 in 2012, but that date may be slipped until 2014, and for rather obvious reasons. Despite its impressive endurance--and prospective cost-savings--the Global Hawk still can't match the U-2.
Regional commanders such as in the Pacific realm rely heavily on the U-2. Key advantages of the aircraft over the Global Hawk include higher altitude (above 70,000 feet) and more available onboard power to run a larger selection of intelligence-gathering sensors.
The U-2 can collect data from all seven of its available bands (versus the Global Hawk’s five) simultaneously. They include green, red, near infrared (visible), two shortwave infrared bands and a midwave infrared (which can be tuned to day or night collection). The seventh band is a redundant, midwave thermal infrared channel.
The shortwave bands collect images in the invisible reflected solar wavelengths and are most useful in detecting objects in adverse conditions such as haze, fog or smoke.
The latest variants of the decade-old U-2S (part of the U.S. fleet of 33 remaining Dragon Ladies) also carry the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS) 2A designed by Raytheon (originally for mapping) that’s so sensitive it can detect disturbed earth in areas where explosive devices and mines have been planted.
The Pentagon has said it will not retire the U-2 at least until the Global Hawk Block 30, which will carry the Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload, is flying. A USAF official said that flight could take place imminently. Another major milestone will be integration of the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program sensor onto the Global Hawk Block 40 next summer.
Still, the arrival of more advanced Global Hawks won't necessarily mean a short-term demise for the U-2. As one Air Force official told Aviation Week, "retiring a mainstay intelligence collector during wars that require vast amounts of sensor data" is unlikely.
In some respects, attempts to get rid of the U-2 are reminiscent of Air Force efforts to retire the A-10. More than 20 years ago, the service decided that the "Hog" was too slow to survive on modern battlefields, and began experimenting with a Close Air Support (CAS) version of the F-16.
The Viper CAS variant (dubbed the A-16) was part of a larger, inter service tug-of-war over roles and missions. The Army, banned from operating fixed-wing combat aircraft by the 1948 Key West Agreement, wanted the A-10 to complement its Apache attack helicopters. While the Air Force was never particularly enthused about the A-10, it wasn't willing to surrender hundreds of aircraft, thousands of pilot slots and millions in funding to the Army.
In the end, the USAF was forced to retain at least two A-10 wings, and there was never an order for the A-16. However, the service did equip 24 F-16s from the New York Air National Guard with a pod version of the A-10's 30mm cannon. Those aircraft deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, along with scores of A-10s.
While the Hawg compiled an impressive combat record, the F-16s with their pod-mounted 30mm cannon were considered a failure. As the New York guard pilots soon discovered, the center-line pylon wasn't as steady as the fixed nose mount of the A-10. Firing the gun shook the aircraft and made it difficult to control.
Additionally, the higher speed of the F-16 gave pilots less time to acquire the target and aim the gun accurately, further reducing its effectiveness. In the end, the pod-mounted 30mm cannon was used as an area weapon, but even that proved unsatisfactory. After only a couple of days in combat, the 30mm cannon pods were removed, and never used again.
As for the A-10, it is expected to remain in the Air Force inventory until at least 2028--and possibly longer. So far, no other aircraft has been able to fully replicate its capabilities--a lesson the USAF is learning again with the U-2.