The Notorious U-2 Spy Plane Dominated the Cold War
U-2 spy planes are still flying across the world sixty years after they entered CIA service.
The United States also began operating U-2s of Detachment H jointly with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the early 1960s, in what became known as the Black Cat Squadron. ROC pilots flew as far over mainland China as Lanzhou in the North West and Kunming in the South West. Unfortunately, the Taiwan-operated U-2s proved no more immune to surface-to-air missiles than Powers’s did, and five U-2s were shot down over the course of 104 spy missions. The U-2s were finally withdrawn in 1974 as U.S. relations with Beijing improved following Nixon’s visit to China.
The U-2 Today . . . and Tomorrow?
Over 104 U-2s were produced in total, the last rolling off the production lines in 1989. The current U-2s are all descended from the U-2R airframe, introduced in 1967, with a 30 percent enlarged fuselage, wings extended to a hundred-foot span and increased fuel capacity.
In 1981, a new variant of the U-2R with special reconnaissance pods under the wings and a Side-Looking Airborne Radar for scanning the ground was rebranded the TR-1A, for “Tactical Reconnaissance.”
The U-2 and TR-1 were no longer performing deep missions over defended airspace—that was a job satellites could do without risk to human life. But the U-2 could still fly safely over areas where there was no threat from high-altitude missiles and modern interceptors, providing higher-quality imagery more flexibly than satellites could.
With the conclusion of the Cold War, U-2Rs and TR-1s were converted to a new model designated the U-2S, thirty-one of which remain in service today. The U-2S has a more powerful F118 engine boosting speed to over five hundred miles per hour, as well as improved sensors and a GPS system. In 2012 the aircraft were further modified under the CARE program to have lower cabin pressure and and cleaner urine collection to make flying them more tolerable for the pilots.
In the last few years, U-2s of the Ninth Reconnaissance Wing have been flying missions lasting up to twelve hours over Iraq and Afghanistan, providing detailed photographic intelligence of ISIS and Taliban positions.
The Air Force had planned to retire the U-2 in 2014 in favor of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. But the U-2 can mount heavier, higher quality sensors than the RQ-4, and is actually less than half the cost to operate per flight hour. Furthermore, an Air Force general noted it could take nearly a decade for the RQ-4s to be ready to provide the same amount of coverage as what the U-2s already offer.
Ultimately, the high-demand placed on aerial recon assets in the conflict with ISIS has resulted in U-2 operations being funded at least until 2019.
Lockheed has proposed to create a special TR-X spy plane derived from the U-2 that can be remotely piloted as a drone over riskier areas. The Pentagon is weighing whether or not to invest up to $4 billion to field thirty to forty of the unstealthy but long-enduring spy drones.
For now, however, the old U-2s will continue to do their job. Though the airframe may be old, the U-2’s sensors are not, allowing the Dragon Lady to provide Washington keep a detailed eye on what’s happening on the ground from high up in the sky.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This first appeared in 2016 and is being republished due to reader interest.