AA classified budget document approved by the Pentagon Dec. 23 calls for the termination by 2011 of one of the most heavily relied-upon reconnaissance planes in the Iraq war.
The storied U-2 spy plane would commence retirement in 2007 under the strictures of Program Budget Decision, or PBD, 720, according to Pentagon, defense industry and congressional officials familiar with the document.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision is classified.
PBD 720 would retire three U-2s in 2007, six in 2008, seven in both 2009 and 2010 and the final 10 in 2011.
The document, one of a host of similar decisions approved in an annual ritual by senior defense officials as the finishing touches are being put to the department's budget request, does not explain the rationale for terminating the program, which has been unsuccessfully targeted for retirement multiple times in the last 10 years.
The decision emanated from the Quadrennial Defense Review deliberations, officials told United Press International. The review will be published early this year.
According to an undated Air Force briefing chart, the U-2 flew 19 percent of the air reconnaissance missions during the 2003 Iraq invasion but provided more than 60 percent of the signals intelligence and 88 percent of battlefield imagery.
The U-2, built by Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, would likely be supplanted by the Northrop Grumman's high-altitude Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle; and champions of the venerable spy plane believe the U-2 termination is meant to hasten the transition away from manned toward unmanned reconnaissance. As long as the U-2 is performing these missions and is available, there is less impetus to develop unmanned platforms and space systems, the high-tech systems heavily favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon.
Five years ago, then-Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters suggested the termination of the U-2 program in 2011 to free up funding to boost production of the nascent Global Hawk. But this and other attempts to retire the U-2 have been rebuffed by Congress.
"There has been a push for a long time and one has to wonder what the push is, and one is that it is a rationale for all to drive the Global Hawk on," said a Capitol Hill official who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity.
The U-2 was first developed in the 1950s, and put into production again in the 1980s. Between 1995 and 1999 the entire fleet received new engines.
These upgrades, along with a new glass cockpit and new sensors, give it useful service life until 2050, according to a Congressional Research Service report from 2000.
The unmanned Global Hawk can fly twice as far as the U-2 and remain on station for three times as long. However, the U-2 can carry twice the payload as the Global Hawk and its superior electrical power from new engine increases some of the capabilities of its onboard sensors. The next generation of the Global Hawk is slated to boost its payload weight and an electrical generator to roughly match the U-2, according to information provided by Northrop Grumman.
The two aircraft have for the last five years been operating as complementary as bugs have been worked out of the relatively new Global Hawk, which suffered two major crashes in Afghanistan in December 2001 and July 2002.
Northrop announced this week the Global Hawk had exceeded 5,000 combat flight hours and flown 233 missions, 157 by a single aircraft. Six Global Hawks have been deployed in the Iraq and Afghan wars. The Air Force currently plans to purchase 51 more of the $50 million craft.
The difference between the aircraft goes beyond the sensors they carry and how long they can fly. A piloted aircraft can be redirected in flight to new targets; the Global Hawk is pre-programmed. Moreover, there are places where the FAA, international aviation regulations or host countries prohibit unmanned aircraft for safety reasons.
"We don't have the benefit of the QDR insights," said the congressional official. "But this is like saying, which one is better a Ford 500 or a Mercedes roadster? The Ford doesn't have a top that can come down. On the other hand you can't put a family of five in a roadster."
There may be a third option in what appears to be an either/or trade-off between manned and unmanned systems: making the U-2 an "optionally piloted vehicle" or OPV with the installation of a new command and control system.
The House of Representatives directed the Pentagon to support the development of the "OWL" OPV in 1998 for counter-drug and border enforcement missions. Sources suggested this might be a way to straddle the gap between the sensor capabilities of the U-2 and the loiter time of the Global Hawk.
The U-2 is a single engine, single-seat aircraft built for flight -- it is almost entirely wings. Flying above 70,000 feet to avoid detection and attack, pilots have to wear spacesuits to protect themselves from low pressure and oxygen starvation.
They affectionately call it the "Dragon Lady" because of its difficult handling at altitude, and the elaborate and dangerous process of landing it.
A chase car is dispatched to the runway to tell the pilot how far he is from the ground; the plane has to be deliberately stalled to get it to touch down.
Taking off is also dangerous: the wings are held aloft by rolling "pogo sticks" that sometimes fail to detach when the aircraft takes flight. U-2 pilots have to dip the wings to drop them, and if they over turn, they can crash. For the dangers and rigors of flight and the skill required for it, American U-2 pilots -- fewer than 75 -- are an elite and tight fraternity.
The small fleet of U-2s has a long and storied history in the Cold War as well as an active place in the war in Iraq.
For most of its history, the U-2 has been regarded as a "strategic" platform, providing information to the president and CIA rather than battlefield commanders.
The 1991 Persian Gulf war changed that: the U-2 provided 50 percent of all imagery and 90 percent of ground-targeting imagery. The war was a watershed for the U-2, when it proved it could provide near-immediate tactically useful imagery. It was the largest U-2 operation ever, with nine aircraft and 30 pilots flying as many as five sorties a day, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The plane also played a large role in the Kosovo conflict, providing 80 percent of battlefield imagery.
The aircraft is best known from the May 1960 shoot-down of Gary Francis Powers, a CIA pilot, over the Soviet Union. Powers' mission was one of several meant to determine for President Dwight D. Eisenhower whether the Soviet Union was building more nuclear bombers than was previously known. From U-2 imagery gathered before Powers' capture and public trial, the United States determined the Soviets had merely erected a façade and there was no bomber or missile gap.