Plans by the U.S. Air Force to retire its existing fleet of U-2s by 2011 has been put on hold because the older aircraft can still do a few tricks that its younger counterparts can’t.
An article in the January 5 Stars and Stripes says that unmanned drones can get pictures of a battlefield, but so far, they can’t eavesdrop electronically, while the Lockheed U-2s can do both.
The high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane is so valued for its intelligence-gathering capabilities, the article notes, that, “even in an age of high-tech unmanned drones, the old spy plane has found a whole new mission over the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The U-2’s replacement would be a version of the existing RQ-4B Global Hawk fitted to take pictures and pick up enemy communications and other electronic signals. However, Air Force Maj. Colby Kuhns, of the Air Force’s High Altitude Transition Team told the publication, “The Global Hawk ‘has the potential to do all that but … it still isn’t quite up to the skill set yet because it’s a new airplane.’”
The Air Force currently has 32 U-2s in its active inventory. They are deployed to three forward-operating locations.
After the Air Force announced in 2005 that the ‘U-2 Dragon Lady’ would be replaced, Congress stepped in.
"Congress directed that we not retire the U-2 unless we consulted with them," said Air Force Col. David M. Sullivan, chief of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Collection Capabilities Division.
"We will make the decision," Sullivan said, "when the Global Hawk has proven itself in combat and that it is meeting the combatant commanders’ needs for intelligence collection."
Once the necessary Global Hawk eavesdropping gadgetry is developed, it will be "retrofitted" onto existing Global Hawk airframes, Kuhns said.
The retrofitted Global Hawk variant might begin flying in a war zone sometime in 2011, Sullivan told Stars and Stripes, but no firm timetable can be set until testing and development is further along.