The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


"Dragon Lady"

On 20 June 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), along with congressional colleagues wrote Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James requesting the military reconsider retiring the U-2 aircraft in 2019 to prevent a gap in high altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection. “We understand that the U-2 fleet has almost 80% of its airframe life remaining, making it sustainable well beyond FY2019. Retirement of the U-2 in the coming years is expected to result in a reduction in high altitude ISR capacity, including the loss of the U-2’s unique intelligence gathering capabilities. ... Rather than seeking to retire the U-2, we encourage the Air Force to consider continuing to fly a mixed fleet of both U-2 and Global Hawk aircraft to prevent a gap in both capability and capacity. While we appreciate your support for near-term capability upgrades to the U-2’s radar and sensors, further investment in the aircraft is limited due to its retirement date. Deferring the retirement of the U-2 would also allow the Air Force time to plan for follow-on systems capable of meeting the full spectrum of high altitude ISR requirements well into the future,” the members of Congress wrote.

The FY2015 budget request included money for Global Hawk Block 30 as a replacement for the U-2, which would be retired. The Global Hawk operating costs had come down significantly, and the opportunities for the technology on the Global Hawk Block 30 had gone up, and the ability to afford them, to train with the operation and support costs looked more attractive. Defense Secretary Chucke Hagel said in a 24 February 2014 briefing: "This decision was a close call, as 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."

On 26 January 2012, the Department of Defense announced that the Global Hawk Block 30 program would be terminated. It had been determined that though the Global Hawk Block 30 program had been initiated to provide essentially the same capability as the U-2 manned aircraft, but at a much reduced cost to both purchase and operate, these savings had not materialized. As the Global Hawk Block 30 program matured it was projected that the future cost of Global Hawk Block 30 operations would be, at best, comparable with the U-2. In DoD's 5-year budget plan, the cost of the Global Hawk program would significantly exceed the cost of the U-2. As a result the Global Hawk Block 30 program was cancelled while the U-2 program was extended.

The Senior Year program is a multi-sensor reconnaissance system which uses the U-2 aircraft as its airborne collection platform. The U-2 weapon system includes the aircraft, sensors, data links and ground stations. The U-2 aircraft is capable of high altitude, long duration flight. Its "un-refueled" capability allows world-wide, quick reaction/response with a minimum of support. Associated ground stations can be linked by line-of-sight or satellite to the reconnaissance sensors, providing near real-time intelligence collection, processing, reporting, and dynamic retasking capability.

The U-2 provides continuous day or night, high-altitude, all-weather, stand-off surveillance of an area in direct support of U.S. and allied ground and air forces. It provides critical intelligence to decision makers through all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, crises, low-intensity conflict and large-scale hostilities. When requested, the U-2 also has provided photographs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in support of disaster relief.

The U-2 is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude, reconnaissance aircraft. Long, wide, straight wings give the U-2 glider-like characteristics. It can carry a variety of sensors and cameras, is an extremely reliable reconnaissance aircraft, and enjoys a high mission completion rate. However, the aircraft can be a difficult aircraft to fly due to its unusual landing characteristics. Because of its high altitude mission, the pilot must wear a full pressure suit.

Early Operations

The product of a remarkable collaboration between the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Air Force, Lockheed Corporation, and other suppliers, the U-2 collected intelligence that revolutionized American intelligence analysis of the Soviet threat. The Lockheed Skunkworks CL-282 aircraft was approved for production by the CIA, under the code-name AQUATONE, with Richard M. Bissell as the CIA program manager. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation OVERFLIGHT -- covert reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union -- after the Soviets flatly rejected his Open Skies plan, which would have allowed aircraft from both countries to openly overfly each other's territory.

An unusual single-engine aircraft with sailplane-like wings, it was the product of a team headed by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson at Lockheed's "Skunk Works" in Burbank, CA. The U-2 made its first flight in August 1955, with famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier, at the controls, and began operational service in 1956.

On 07 May 1956 NACA Director Dr. Hugh L. Dryden issued a press release stating that U-2 aircraft were conducting weather research for NACA with Air Force support from Watertown, Nevada. A second press release was issued on 22 May 1956 with cover story for U-2 aircraft operating overseas. In early 1960 NACA Director Dr. Hugh L. Dryden told a US Senate committee that some 200 U-2 flights carrying NASA weather instrumentation had taken place since 1956.

Members of a unit innocuously designated 2nd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (Provisional), began to arrive at Adana Air Base in Turkey in August 1956. The extremely sensitive nature of the mission dictated the construction of a secure compound within the base, which did not yet have a perimeter fence. Detachment 10-10 under the Turkey Cover Plan arrived to support a new operation, Project TL-10. The Air Force provided the squadron commander and logistical support, while the Central Intelligence Agency provided the operations officer, pilots, and mission planners. The unit's mission, contrary to its name, had nothing to do with weather. It flew U-2 aircraft at extremely high altitudes to gather photographic imagery and electronic signals for intelligence purposes. The main target of these flights was the Soviet Union.

The American intelligence community would come to rely on this information to assess Soviet technological advances. However, the Soviet Union was not the sole objective of the operation. For instance, in September 1956, Francis Gary Powers flew over the eastern Mediterranean to determine the position of British and French warships poised to assist Israel's invasion of Egypt after Egyptian forces seized the Suez Canal. Other flights followed to gather data on military activity during crises involving Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Yemen.

By late 1957, Adana AB (renamed Incirlik AB on 28 February 1958) had become the main U-2 operating location, having absorbed the resources of a unit in Germany. One of the tasks the unit performed involved flying over missile sites in the Soviet Union from forward operating locations at Lahore and Peshawar in Pakistan. For every mission that penetrated Soviet airspace, there was at least one surveillance flight along the border to divert Soviet air defense attention from the intruder. These diversionary flights typically departed Adana AB traveling over Van (in eastern Turkey), Iran, and the southern Caspian Sea to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; they returned along a similar route. These periphery missions usually collected communications and electronic signals instead of photographic imagery.

The U-2 operation continued at the base for several years in the utmost secrecy, until 1 May 1960. On that morning Gary Powers, then a veteran of 27 missions, took off from Peshawar destined for Bødo, Norway. He was to overfly and photograph two major intercontinental ballistic missile test sites in the Soviet Union en route, one at Sverdlovsk, the other at Plesetsk. Heavy antiaircraft missile concentrations guarded both sites.

Powers took off on time, as did the diversionary flight from Incirlik, and the mission continued as planned until he reached Sverdlovsk. While on the photo run at 67,000 feet, the Soviets launched a volley of 14 SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at Powers' aircraft. Although the SA-2s could not achieve the same altitude as the U-2, the aircraft disintegrated in the shock waves caused by the exploding missiles.

After Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA flight on 1 May 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot "reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment." To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on 6 May 1960. The next day, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev exposed the cover-up by revealing that the pilot had been captured, and espionage equipment had been recovered from the wreckage. Soviet authorities subsequently arrested Powers after he successfully ejected from the plane, and held him on espionage charges for nearly 2 years.

The Turkish, Pakistani, and Norwegian governments claimed to have no knowledge of the American U-2 overflights, and shortly afterwards all U-2s and support personnel quietly returned to the United States.

On October 15, 1962, Maj. Richard S. Heyser piloted a U-2 over Cuba to obtain the first photos of Soviet offensive missile sites. Major Rudolph Anderson, Jr. was killed on a similar mission on October 27, 1962, when his U-2 was shot down.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 21-06-2016 19:06:43 ZULU