The legendary U-2 spy plane may finally be retired

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: One thing you can be sure of with this Ukraine crisis, and that's that US intelligence is straining every nerve to figure out what the heck is going on. Like where exactly are the Russian troops and what are they doing? One of the oldest tools in the intelligence toolbox is still one of the best: the original spy-in-the-sky: the U-2 spy plane. Only it seems the Air Force now wants to phase it out after almost 60 years in service. I've got lots of questions about that and The World's Chris Woolf has been digging into the story. Remind us what exactly the U-2 is, Chris, and what it does.

Chris Woolf: It's a high flying reconnaissance plane. When I say high flying, we're talking 70,000 feet, that's like 13 miles up in the sky.

Werman: Twice the height that most commercial aircraft fly.

Woolf: Exactly. It looks remarkable. It's a long, thin, pencil-shaped plane with these enormous wings. The wings are so big that it has actually little, what they call "pogos" on each end when it takes off, which fall out once it's into the air. Then they have these skids so that when it lands, the wings actually hit the ground and skid along, just because it's such a remarkable piece of hardware that it has to have all these special qualities to get so high up in the sky.

Werman: So it's been in service for almost 60 years. How did the U-2 plane actually get its historic start?

Woolf: You have to remember, the height of the Cold War, suddenly there's this incredible need to find out what is actually going on in Russia. You remember all the Cold War movies about the bomber gap and the missile gap. They had no weight, there were no satellites back then. The Russians were very aggressive, the Soviets, in shooting down any planes that would try and get into their airspace. So they decided they needed something that could go above Soviet air defenses and above the radar, they thought, and see what was going on. It was incredible, the amount of intelligence that just a single flight could gather. Eisenhower, who was president at the time, personally took an interest and supervised each mission, guiding it to specific places. On one of the first flights, the first week they were deployed in 1956, they were able to figure out there is no bomber gap. There's these nine bases we checked out with this one flight, not a bomber in sight.

Werman: The U-2, some might remember, that one was shot down in Russia that was in the USSR with pilot Francis Gary Powers aboard, is that right?

Woolf: That's right, yes. That was a major diplomatic incident at the time.

Werman: And would remember during the Cuban missile, under JFK, those pictures, those aerial photographs of missile launchers in Cuba. Were those taken by a U-2 spy plane?

Woolf: They were indeed. In fact, one of the U-2 pilots was killed trying to get more pictures. He was shot down. But yes, those pictures were picked up by a U-2, and it's still going strong.

Werman: How effective is it after 60 years?

Woolf: It's being phased out. It's not because of obsolescence. It's one of the most useful things that the US has for finding out what's going on, as they say, on the other side of the hill. For example, just recently in 2011, the big tsunami and earthquake in Japan, "We need eyes on that reactor now to see what's going on." So it's going to take however many days for a satellite to be in the right place, but we can get a U-2 there this afternoon. So one took off from the base in South Korea and pretty soon they were able to gauge "This is a problem but it's not a catastrophe yet."

Werman: So why does the Air Force now want to get rid of it? Whatever happened to "If it ain't broke..." much less "If it's good, don't fix it."

Woolf: The Army wants them. The Army's top commander in South Korea just told Congress last month that it's an invaluable tool for helping him trying to figure out what's going on in North Korea. But the Air Force wants to try to switch to an entirely drone-based system. They've been trying to push this for more than ten years now.

Werman: I was going to ask you, how much is this being pushed by drone technology that's smaller and cheaper than a U-2?

Woolf: That's the problem: it's not cheaper. I'm not an aerial engineer, I can't figure out why it is, but the drone flights cost about three times as much per hour as a U-2 flight, so legislation has been written that you can't dump it completely until the new system is cheaper. But the problem is now they're running two systems, the drone and the U-2's and that's very expensive and so the Air Fore wants to phase out the U-2. It could still well be going until 2023 but we'll have to see what happens when Congress looks at the defense policy bill which is taken up next week.

Werman: The World's Chris Woolf, thank you so much.

Woolf: You're welcome.