Based at times in Area 51, the U-2 spyplane tested the very limits of human endurance and Cold War technology when it first flew in 1955. Pilots would fly the high-altitude spy craft at above 70,000 feet for hours at a time, taking photos of developments below. One such flight revealed the buildup of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, and sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the advent of drones, and specifically the long-endurance high-altitude Global Hawk, the U-2’s days in service might be numbered. A plan by Lockheed wants convert the venerable spy plane of the past into a modern surveillance robot of the future.
Global Hawk and U-2 programs have been rivals for years, with the old-timer flying higher, carrying more sensors, and offering defensive countermeasures, while the younger drone far surpasses it in endurance. Global Hawks can fly for 24 hours continuously, twice that of the mandated 12-hour limit for onboard U-2 pilots, and the Global Hawk can change pilots mid-course, as its remote controls allow crew changes throughout the flight time.
Lockheed’s proposal to upgrade their U-2s into optionally manned planes would mitigate the plane’s greatest weakness, which is the human on board. The new change would add a wingbox to the center of the U-2’s body. This box would extend the wingspan, connect the plane’s controls to a new remote-control system, and could include a “full-motion video sensor.” This sensor is basically a video camera with extra software, so it can generate tags, read license plates, and maybe even recognize faces. Lockheed prices the cost of the upgrade at $700 million for three converted U-2s and the remote operating stations needed to fly them.
The spyplane game is expensive no matter which craft the Air Force ultimately selects. The Global Hawk won the latest round of budget negotiations, when the cost-per-flight-hour dropped to $24,000 in 2013, while the U-2’s cost per flight hour remained at around $32,000. Again, that’s cost per flight hour. A dronified U-2 might be able to do all that a Global Hawk can, but given the plane’s age it’s possible it will never do it as cheaply. Faced with cybernetic enhancements as an alternative to replacement by robots, maybe retirement is the way to go.