Conflict & Justice

The legendary U-2 spy plane may finally be retired


A TR-1A (U-2) of the US Air Force's 95th Recon Squadron takes to the air.


US Air Force

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. Except, the Air Force now wants to phase it out, after almost 60 years in service.

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There’s one thing you can be certain of, when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, and that is that US intelligence is straining every nerve to figure out what the heck is going on. Where exactly are the Russian troops? What are they doing?

It’s the kind of thing the U-2 was built for, to gather facts your rivals would prefer be kept secret. Like figuring out in 1956 whether the Soviet Union has more bombers than the West. Or whether nuclear missiles had been deployed to Cuba, back in 1962.

It was originally hoped the U-2 could fly above Soviet air defences and beyond the range of Soviet radar. Those hopes eventually proved false, as was embarrassingly revealed when the Soviets shot down a U-2 in 1960 and captured pilot Francis Gary Powers. But it’s still useful.  

In fact, the U-2 has many advantages over satellites and drones. In 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan, a U-2 was quickly sent to figure out how badly the reactor at Fukushima was damaged. A satellite might have taken days to get into position.

The U-2 is also cheaper to operate than a drone. That’s why Congress has stifled the Air Force’s attempts to scrap the U-2 in recent years.

But now the Air Force is renewing its proposal to phase out the plane, as part of its submission for the new Defense Policy Bill. Yes, the U-2 may be cheaper to operate than a drone, but running both programs makes no sense, fiscally. Or so says the Air Force.

The US Army doesn’t agree. Just last month, the top US commander in South Korea, Army General Curtis Scaparotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U-2 provides unique capabilities that a drone does not. He went on to say retiring the U-2 “will be a loss in intelligence that’s very important to our indicators and warnings.”

Congress is slated to take up the Defense Bill next week.