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Air Force's U-2 aircraft get new lease on life

The draft of the federal budget for 2013 pulls back the throttle on the rival Global Hawk program. An Air Force general says the U-2, a design that dates to the 1950s, is "the stronger system."

A U-2 pilot at an airfield in Southwest Asia gives the  thumbs-up, signaling that all systems are go for a mission in October 2009.
A U-2 pilot at an airfield in Southwest Asia gives the thumbs-up, signaling that all systems are go for a mission in October 2009.
U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski

Score one for old-school aircraft against the upstart drones.

Perhaps it's just a brief respite from the seemingly inevitable winds of change propelling unmanned aircraft ever higher in the Pentagon's airpower depth charts, but the venerable U-2 spy plane has won a key vote of confidence over the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk. That victory came not in a head-to-head aerial dogfight, but in a more bureaucratic conveyance: the draft of the federal budget for the U.S. government's fiscal 2013.

"The Administration proposes to end production of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle," says the budget proposal (PDF), released last week. "High altitude reconnaissance operations will continue with the manned U-2 aircraft which can perform the same missions as the Global Hawk, but at a lower cost."

The Global Hawk line item drops from $342 million in the current fiscal year to zero for the coming year. The Air Force's fleet of 30-plus U-2 aircraft, meanwhile, are already pretty much bought and paid for. The last delivery of a U-2 to the Air Force from manufacturer Lockheed Martin was in 1989.

Global Hawk at air base in Southwest Asia in November 2010. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin

The Air Force didn't mince words about the selection. "The U-2 is a stronger system, so we're going to go with the stronger system," Maj. Gen. Edward L. Bolton Jr., deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for budget, said in a Pentagon news briefing last week. The base budget for the Air Force in the 2013 proposal stands at $154.3 billion, down from $162.5 billion this year.

That's not how it was supposed to play out. The Air Force had been looking to retire the U-2 last year. And its plans had called for continued expansion of Global Hawk ranks, plans that have now lost a good deal of lift. (Remember, too, that a budget draft isn't yet the actual budget. Global Hawk maker Northrop Grumman may yet find support enough in Congress for reinstatement of some or all of the funding marked for elimination.)

It says a lot about issues of cost and complexity that a hot new technology is taking a back seat to a design that's been around since the mid-1950s. The slender U-2 has been upgraded over time with a newer engine, fiber optics, a longer wingspan, and the digital conveniences of the glass cockpit, but it's still essentially the same recon and surveillance aircraft that the U.S. used to good effect in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a couple of years after the unwelcome publicity of Francis Gary Powers' U-2 being shot down by the Soviet Union.

The U-2, also known as the Dragon Lady, is in good company when it comes to codgers. The B-52 and the C-130 have also been in service for more than a half-century.

Update Feb. 23 at 6:43 p.m. PT: While the Global Hawk may have taken a hit in the budget draft, the Air Force wants to make it clear that the program as a whole remains viable. "The Air Force is not eliminating the entire Global Hawk program. We are only planning to retire the RQ-4 Block 30s. We are, however, moving forward with plans to acquire the Block 40 version of this airframe," says an Air Force spokesman.

This 1966 photo shows U-2 designer Kelly Johnson (left) with famed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Did either have an inkling the aircraft would still be flying more than a decade into the 21st century? U.S. Air Force photo