Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pentagon May Delay Replacement of U-2 Spy Planes Because of Defense Department Cutbacks

At Los Angeles Times, "U.S. may rely on aging U-2 spy planes longer than expected":
Wars have come and gone. But for more than half a century, the CIA and U.S. military have relied on a skinny sinister-looking black jet to go deep behind enemy lines for vital intelligence-gathering missions.

The high-flying U-2 spy plane was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the iron curtain and, as engineers said, snap "picture postcards for Ike" of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union.

And although the plane is perhaps best known for being shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and the subsequent capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 continues to play a critical role in national security today, hunting Al Qaeda forces in the Middle East. The aging cold warrior once slated for retirement in 2015 may fight on into the next decade.

The fleet of 33 spycraft was supposed to be replaced in the next few years with RQ-4 Global Hawks, the high-tech drones that have been part of the Air Force since 2001. But this week the Pentagon proposed delaying the U-2's retirement as part of Defense Department cutbacks.

At an estimated cost of $176 million each, the Global Hawk drone had "priced itself out of the niche, in terms of taking pictures in the air," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at a Thursday news conference. "That's a disappointment for us, but that's the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment."

The Pentagon has determined that operating the U-2 would be cheaper for the foreseeable future; it won't disclose how much operating the U-2s will cost for security reasons. The government has relied on the U-2 since 1955, when the aircraft was first built and designed under tight security by Lockheed Corp. at its famed Skunk Works facilities in Burbank headed by legendary chief engineer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson.

"It's incredible to think that these planes are flying," said Francis Gary Powers Jr., Powers' son and founder of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. "You'd think another spy plane, or satellite or drone would come along by now to replace it."
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