To hunt for banned weapons Saddam Hussein may have hidden inside Iraq, the United States and the United Nations aren’t using the latest billion-dollar spy satellite to keep vigilant watch. They picked a 45-year-old aircraft. But the U-2 spy plane, which began surveillance this week, may turn out to be the savvy choice.
Operated by the Air Force’s 9th Reconaissance Wing at California’s Beale Air Force Base, the U-2 has decisive advantages over satellites. The United States may use its space cameras to plan for war, but weapons inspections are almost tailor-made for the U-2.
It can peer through clouds, while satellites require clear skies. It captures images nearly in real time, and can maneuver itself to whichever patch of ground that intelligence analysts want to see; satellites operate on a fixed ground track through their orbit, which makes them predictable for those on the ground who want to hide.
“You can just keep a U-2 over an area for an hour at a time, or two hours or three hours,” says defense analyst and historian Norman Polmar. “You can go back 20 minutes, or an hour, or two hours later and look at the same target. Suppose you have a convoy leaving a facility … a satellite cannot track that.”
Equally useful is the flight duration of the Dragon Lady, as the U-2 is called: 10 hours or more, depending on where it’s based. U-2s are deployed around the world; those over Iraq likely are flying from Kuwait or from Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air Base, giving pilots nearly a half-day in the air.
On board, the U-2 carries the “Senior Year” sensing system, which includes precision cameras to shoot digital images and immediately relay them to the ground using a downlink faster than an Ethernet connection. It can monitor radar and communications signals (SIGINT), and perform radar mapping. During the Cold War, it often photographed at oblique angles to peer far across the Soviet border, but this time is probably using a straight-down camera to capture the most precise images.
Perhaps most important, the U-2 is not secret technology. The scope and quality of its images — estimated to be about a 6-inch resolution — are well-known throughout global intelligence communities. It may not be as precise as the American KH-12 “Improved Crystal” satellite, but it avoids having to give U.N. officials — and possibly foreign governments — any results from classified U.S. technology.
“While it’s a very significant platform, it’s not like we’re going to have to give up the farm,” says Patrick Garrett, an associate researcher for Globalsecurity.org. “People know what the U-2 intelligence looks like.”
Nearing its 50th birthday, the U-2 remains an impressive piece of equipment — not only as a precise airborne camera, but also as an airplane.
The key to its extraordinary abilities lies in a 103-foot wingspan, over 60 percent wider than the plane is long — like a glider with a jet engine. The wings are so wide they require special, detachable wheels for takeoff known as pogos. First flown in 1955, the design by Lockheed’s Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson was eventually adopted by both the Air Force and the CIA and tested at the secret Groom Lake facility in Nevada. Early flights often used weather missions as a cover story.
Its current U-2S design is far larger and can fly almost twice as far. The engine is more powerful, though it still uses just one — to help keep the plane light — something rarely seen in jet aircraft.
It cruises at 70,000 feet, where some pilots can see the curve of the earth. Hundreds of miles are visible below; the sky above can appear pitch black during the day.
At those altitudes, the physics of flight are rewritten. While the plane cruises around 400 knots (460 mph), the air is so thin that the airspeed on cockpit indicators — metered by air pressure moving against the aircraft — reads only 90 knots. More perilously, a window of only 10 knots exists to fly the plane: any faster and you overstress the frame; any slower and you could tumble out of the sky.
“When you start getting up to those altitudes you have what you call a ‘coffin corner,’” says Paul Memrick, who piloted U-2s during the final years of the Cold War. “The stall speed and the mach overspeed will pretty much meet.”
The right stuff
Only about 80 pilots in the world currently fly the Dragon Lady. The program is limited to experienced military flyers, and two-thirds are rejected even before a tough interview process, which weeds out another 50 percent.
Those who are accepted fly about 180 days per year, rotating through two-month missions. The pilots don pressure suits and helmets similar to those worn during early space shuttle missions, and breathe pure oxygen for an hour before flight.
The spy equipment largely takes care of itself, leaving the pilot to fly the plane in its demanding configuration along carefully planned routes. New digital “glass” cockpits have been commissioned for the 32 planes currently in service, but many dials and gauges are still 1950s-era technology. That becomes a special challenge as the U-2 is known to be one of the hardest aircraft to land. With a single gauge to monitor two tanks worth of fuel, the pilot must all but stall the plane on descent to find out which wing is heavier, and then transfer fuel to get balance. “You have to pretty much be a test pilot on every flight,” says Memrick.
The U-2 must then be flown over the runway, where a fellow pilot on the ground races ahead in a Camaro and calls out the last few feet of altitude. At just one foot off the ground, the pilot brings the tail wheel down, the nose flares up and the U-2 drops onto its larger main gear.
The other big danger is, of course, enemy fire. U-2s fly higher than enemy fighters, but without weapons on board, are prey for tracking radar and surface-launched missiles.
That was the case in 1960, during the U-2’s most infamous moment. Soviet missiles weren’t able to hit Francis Gary Powers, a Lockheed pilot working for the CIA, but shock waves from the explosions below him shattered his aircraft, forcing him to bail out. His capture earned him two years in a Soviet prison and left the United States trying to explain its secret intelligence efforts. The U-2s were pulled from Soviet monitoring operations. During the Cold War, U-2s were also shot down over Cuba and China.
These days, U-2s are rarely sent up without a defense plan. Fighter jets would probably be available in Iraq’s northern and southern no-fly zones, ready to take out enemy fighters or radar installations that threaten the surveillance flights.
“If it picks up something, the pilot just gets on the emergency frequency and says, ‘I’m being painted,’” says Polmar, co-author of “Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage.”
That, in turn, may lead to a tricky bit of diplomacy: In order to keep Iraq from hiding anything, officials won’t want to discuss U-2 flight paths in advance. Still, as part of their deal, U.N. officials agreed to give Iraq up to two days’ advance notice before the flights.
Iraq will thus have to either turn off most military radar during the flights or risk losing installations. That certainly helps, but U-2 pilots’ mandate to detect threats remains paramount — right down to the motto on the Dragon Lady flight patch: “In God we trust, all others we monitor.”