ByStudent Name’s


AmericanU-2 and Policy Change

TheUS military reconnaissance and espionage aircraft has been the mostnotable, most efficient aircraft dedicated for reconnaissance andhigh altitude surveillance the world over, as well as responsible forsuccessful operations in critical military operations including theGulf War, the Iraqi Freedom War, and in the Horn of Africa. It hasbeen blown over many countries such as China, the Soviet Union, Cubaand Vietnam. It would be collect to say that no single aircraft builtfor these purposes has claimed as much extensive and efficient use asthe U-21.However, the U-2 has been facing several challenges. The challengesrange from operational efficiency, to secrecy concerns such as thoseraised during the 1960 U-2 shoot-down in Russia, and military budgetpolicies and alternative reconnaissance and espionage alternatives.This paper will explore the current and historical challenges facingthe U-2 aircraft, as well as the implications of the planned policychanges to the military in the future.

TheU-2 Aircraft

TheLockheed U-2 aircraft is a military aircraft made by Lockheed MartinCompany starting in 1955 under commission of the US government. Itwas initially made under commission of the Central IntelligenceAgency (CIA) and now the United States Air Force (USAF). It is alsoused by the China Air force as well as NASA. Its primary purpose isto provide intelligence gathering both in daylight and in darknessand regardless of the weather conditions. The U-2 aircraft has alsobeen involved in many missions requiring communications enhancement,calibration of satellites, and research. The U-2 has seen one of thelongest serving times of all military aircraft. Despite its longserving history, only 86 units were built. At the time of itsinception, the aircraft was intended primarily as an aircraft capableof attaining very high altitude and able to carry relatively heavyand sophisticated photography and other data gathering equipment2.Its reason for operating in very high altitudes was to avoid radardetection, as well as to attain a wide range of coverage. LockheedMartin developed a prototype that could deliver the primaryexpectations, initially as a two person carrier and later a oneperson carrier.

Theaircraft is not intended to carry weaponry in a bid to remain lighteras well as to maintain high stealth levels. At the time of itsinitial development, most leading countries including Britain, theSoviet Union and Germany, did not have radar that could penetrate60,000 feet in altitude. This implied that the Lockheed U-2 couldattain almost complete stealth. In addition to stealth, the U-2 wasintended to carry enough fuel to attain very high range, as theterritory in which it would typically operate is enemy territory andrefueling almost always prohibited3.In addition, the craft need to remain airborne in very high altitudesfor lengthy periods of time in order to attain the desired coverage.The high altitude also implies that ordinary jet fuel, primarilymilitary grade Kerosene, could not be usable due to vaporizationconcerns. Thus, a high performance fuel needed to be developed. Thecombination of lightness, enough reconnaissance cargo space, hugecapacity for fuel carrying and stealth capabilities, was the originalconcept of the Lockheed U-2.

Technicalspecifications of the U-2

Anempty U-2S aircraft weighs only 6760 Kg, making it one of the lighestaircraft of its size and dimensions. The plane has a lengthy of 19metres, and a wingspan of over 31 M. This dimensioning allows theplane a very high aspect ratio of10.6:1 – 23:1 in some variants,allowing it to achieve glider properties that allow it to save fuelin flight. Despite its small hull weight, the U-2 can carry anincredible 11.4 tons of cargo, to achieve a maximum takeoff weight ofmore than 18 tons. Mostly, this weight is intended to be fuel, aswell as photography and reconnaissance equipment. To lighten theplane, only one crew is accommodated, except only five build with acrew of two to allow training. Over its history, the plane has beenpowered by two different engines. The current engine is the GeneralElectric F118 turbofan capable of producing 85,000 Newton of thrust.This gives the aircraft a climb rate of 4500 M per minute to attainaltitudes upward of 70,000 feet.

TheU-2 has a cruise speed of 690Kmlh, much lower than most militaryaircraft. The plane is not intended for quick maneuvers or high exitspeeds as those reached by fighter jets it is built for endurance inspace and data collection capabilities. Its top speed is 805 km/h,much less than that of most other military aircraft. The U-2,however, has the advantage of range. The aircraft has a range of10,300 Km, one of the highest of any military aircraft. It has aflight endurance of 12 hours, which is also very high in militarystandards, allowing it to capture sufficient data to make itactionable4.

Challengesfacing the U-2 Aircraft Program

Thechallenges that the U-2 faced are wide ranging and span the past andthe present. The section below will discuss the major challenges.


Theprimary objective of the U-2 aircraft was to detection by enemycountries when the US deployed it in enemy countries during the ColdWar5.The primary targets were Germany and the Soviet Union. The USpresident at the time was Eisenhower, who authorized the firstfly-over missions in Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Afterthe Second World War, most countries had radar capable of less than20Km in the sky, making the U-2 almost undetectable. However, the USunderestimated the ability of some countries’ radar and othersurveillance systems. In May 1st,1960, the US deployed a U-2 surveillance plane over the Soviet Union,which continued to engage the foreign country in deep spacepenetration. The plane was however, detected by the Sovietauthorities, leading to the popular 1stMay 1960 U-2 shoot down incident6.

Theincident was not the first, but the 24thsuch incident. It was chosen on a public holiday though, when mostcommercial flights in Soviet air were not operational. This leads toisolation and easy detection by the soviet radar, which even at thetime had capabilities of scanning deep space. The plane entered theSoviet Union in the South, and was to collect data across theinterior and exit in Norway in the North West. The plane was detectedin mid flight, just four hours into the flight. The Soviets aimedSurface to Air Missiles (SAMs), with one hitting a soviet chaseaircraft behind the U-2. The impact behind the U-2 destroyed thesoviet vessel, and the shockwave arising from it proceeded to damagethe U-2, dislodging its massive wings. The pilot realized the impactand ejected in a parachute, landing on Soviet Soil. The pilot wasshortly captured by the soviet authorities did not mention hiscapture7.

TheUS attempted a cover up story stating that a US weatherreconnaissance plane deployed over Turkey had been missing. TheSoviet Union however, revealed, on 7thMay that they had the plane’s pilot who was captured, and wasassisting in investigations. This incident greatly embarrassed the USpresident and military, as well as raised criticism from the public.This was really the first and enduring major challenge that the U-2faced. The pilot had been given a suicide pill based on a deadlyfish toxin, but he chose not to use it. He was later exchanged by thesoviet government with a soviet prisoner held in the US, greatlycompromising the success of the US military tactic that was entrustedin the stealth capabilities of the U-2. The U-2’s altitudecapabilities did not change since its concept as altitudes higherthan 70,000 feet presented other challenges. This means that theplane is not essentially invisible to radar, and its operationalefficiency in purely enemy territory, especially where such territoryis so vast as to necessitate deep penetration, is compromised. Theplane can reconaisse over a range of more than 100Km, thus making itpossible to use the U-2 in war missions where it has a safe anchorplace in friendly territory near the border of the target area.

Theother challenge facing the U-2 since its inception is itsreconnaissance and espionage capabilities. The original plane wasdedicatedly made to carry photography equipment. The airplane has aseries of sensors installed in its nose area, as well as wing pods.Thus, the plane is able to collect images, air samples, and relatedweather information. In addition, the plane also has wet filmphotography, and radar imagery. The plane has very sophisticatedsoftware systems to enable it to gather information in the line ofsight and outside the line of sight. The plane uses either 180 inchf13.85 lens. The cameras have a range of above 60,000 feet. At thetime of its development, these capabilities were legendary, and arestill a strong investment in today’s standards. In the recenttechnological development period, some critics have argued that theU-2’s capabilities are limited8.The most strongly criticized items include its camera, whichproponents of satellite systems say no longer meet global standards,and its all weather operating capabilities, which some haveclassified as poor. In its place, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is planned toget into use. This latter aircraft still has not met the U-2’s fullrange of capabilities yet, and is unmanned and dedicated to morefunctionalities than the U-2. Plans have been in place to retire theU-2 from as early as year 2003 under approval from the Pentagon, butoperational capabilities of the U-2’s replacement has beenquestionable every time, forcing the US government to extend the useof the U-2 up to year 2023 according to some reports9.Today, satellites have the capability to pick up ground activity towithin a precision of metres, using sophisticated triangulationmethods with pinpoint accuracy. In addition, satellite basedinformation gathering maybe much less expensive, in the longer term,than individual plane reconnaissance. However, global orbitingsatellites may not be as easily directed to a target as the U-2planes, meaning that urgent redirection of aircraft towardsstationary or moving targets using satellites may proof to beinefficient or impossible in some circumstances10.

Theother major challenge facing the U-2 aircraft it its cost concerns.During their manufacture, the planes cost an initial amount of $22.5million for 20 aircraft in 1955. Numerous modification instances, aswell as adjustment for currency inflation, have made the aircraftmore expensive in each period of review. The air force has constantlyrisen to the defense of the U-2, arguing that the cost effectivenessof the U-2 in comparison to RQ-4 alternative which the pentagon hasproposed as the next reconnaissance vessel is still relativelygreater. The cost of operating the U-2 is estimated at $2380 perhour, while that of the alternative, Global Hawk, has more than $6710per hour. Clearly, operating costs of the U-2’s most viablereplacement are more than 2 times higher, making the replacement ofthe U-2 only on the grounds of cost effectiveness, unrealistic. Thecost per unit hour of the Global Hawk is expected to reduce, but byhow much as how soon is still unclear. The pentagon estimates thatreplacement of the U-2 will cost the government and military $2.2billion. The U-2s rival, the Global Hawk, will need almost $2 billionto become entirely operational in 10 years. Retiring the U-2 at thismoment while the Hawk is still undergoing upgrade to rival the U-2may create an operation gap between the sides.

Implicationof the Termination of the U-2 to the Military

Ifthe U-2 termination is actualized, several outcomes may result.Firstly, the U-2 plane is dedicated for military intelligencegathering, operating at short notice with huge areas to give preciseresults. The U-2 in the US has been used primarily as a spy aircraftwith no information being divulged from the aircraft’s operators.The introduction of the R-Q4 has implied that the U-2’s duties areno longer exclusive to the military. The use of satellites to controlreconnaissance and espionage is becoming more and more unreliable, assatellites cannot be commanded to redirect on a target area or objectas quickly and efficiently as the U-2 can. In addition, informationgathered using the various other tools used as alternatives to theU-2 may become more difficult to conceal, posing a real threat to themilitary and intelligence wings in the government. The RQ-4 globalhawk, the proposed immediate replacement of the U-2, still lacks someof the vital components of the U-2, built 50 years ahead of it. Thisimplies that immediate shift to use the RQ-4 will means that poorerresults may be obtained, and the cost of program harmonization maybevery expensive. The current per hour operation costs of the U2 isless than half that of the RQ-411.

Thestipulated lack of confidentiality in reconnaissance once the systemis shifted from the military controlled U-2 to other vessels mayeasily lead to information leakage as civilians may interact withclassified information from time to time. This may lead to acompromise on matters of foreign affairs, as well as a threat tonational security. It is worth noting that some of the informationgathered by the U-2 is classified and divulging it may lead toconflict between nations12.

Thereliance on satellite imaging and information gathering, however, mayhave its advantages. Even though the conceptual development tobuilding military satellites that are very sensitive to urgentcommands is still in its inception stages, it is a worth expensesince global surveillance technology is increasingly usingsatellites. Satellites have the advantage that they do not infringeany one country’s airspace rights and therefore may not usually beshot down. This means that satellite surveillance will expandmilitary intelligence gathering greatly. In addition, satellites haveincreasingly become more powerful with time. Thus, resolution forground details and operations will become better with time, which isgood for the military. However, satellite is not easy to use forcollecting local data such as weather data, as well as air samplesamong other items. Satellites typically operate at geo-synchronizeddistances from the earth, a radial position in which such samplesmaybe unpractical to collect. The overall implications for themilitary in the event that the U-2 is removed is that there will beless secrecy and more expenses in the long run, but also moreaccuracy and clarity of information.


A&ampETelevision Networks AmericanU-2 spy plane shot down.2014, Available at,U-2High-Altitude Reconnaissance Aircraft,United States of America. 2014. Available at

Pedlow,G. “CIA and the U2 Program 1954-1974” 1998. DianePublishing

Pocock,Chris. TheU-2 Spyplane Toward the Unknown.Schiffer Military History. 2000.

TheCold War Museum. TheU-2 Incident.2013. available at

1 Pedlow, G. “CIA and the U2 Program 1954-1974” 1998, p. 15

2 Ibid

3, U-2 High-Altitude Reconnaissance Aircraft, United States of America. 2014., p. 1

4, p. 1

5 Ibid

6 Pedlow, p. 18

7 Pocock, Chris. The U-2 Spyplane Toward the Unknown. Schiffer Military History. 2000, p. 21

8 Ibid

9 Pocock, p. 23

10 The Cold War Museum. The U-2 Incident. 2013, p. 1

11 Ibid

12 A&ampE Television Networks American U-2 spy plane shot down. 2014,p.1