BACK TO THE FUTURE
The Cold War Spy Plane Fighting ISIS
Two years ago, the U.S. Air Force had hoped to retire the iconic U-2, first flown in 1955. But in the war on ISIS, it’s all spy planes on deck—and those plans for retirement have been put on hold.
The U.S. Air Force has quietly offered a rare glimpse of one of the more secretive warplanes involved in the war on ISIS.
On Aug. 6, Air Forces Central Command—the flying branch’s headquarters overseeing operations in the Middle East—released a video of a black-painted U-2 spy plane taking off and landing at what the command described as an “undisclosed location” on July 14.
The iconic spy plane’s mission, according to command, was to “support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” America’s campaign against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria.
That undisclosed location is almost certainly Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, where since at least 2002 the U.S. Air Force has stationed some of its most powerful aircraft for missions over Afghanistan and the Middle East. Commercial satellite imagery has confirmed the U-2’s presence at Al Dhafra. In 2005, a U-2 crashed at the sprawling Emirati base while landing after a spy flight over Afghanistan. Tragically, the pilot died.
Confirmation of the U-2’s role in the war on ISIS underscores the U.S. military’s challenge in finding and identifying militant forces across the roughly 26,000 square miles of mostly desolate terrain that the terror group controls in Iraq and Syria.
First flown in 1955, the U-2 has spied on America’s enemies in nearly every major U.S. conflict. In the ’50s and ’60s, U-2s operated by the CIA flew over the Soviet Union, photographing Soviet nuclear sites. In 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2 over their territory and captured the pilot, Gary Powers. U-2s spied on Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and later deployed to Vietnam. In the 1990s, the U-2s’ attention turned to the Middle East. After the 9/11 attacks, the black jets went looking for terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There’s no other plane quite like a U-2. Glider-like, with a single engine, the U-2’s straight, 103-feet-long wing helps it to fly for 12 hours or more at altitudes higher than 70,000 feet, giving its huge, high-tech cameras a wide view of the ground below. A U-2 could take detailed photographs of ISIS’s entire territory on just one mission.
The catch is, it’s hard to fly. The pilot must wear a special, pressurized flight suit not unlike an astronaut’s space suit. Visibility in the cramped cockpit is poor. That plus the U-2’s unique aerodynamics make the plane hard to land. Whenever a U-2 comes in for a landing, an off-duty pilot hops in a government-issue sports car and escorts the descending plane along the runway, radioing guidance to the on-board pilot—as evident in the new video.
Upgraded with better engines, sensors, and communications, the U-2s are still on the cutting edge of technology more than 60 years after entering service. “The U-2 gives you the ability to carry heavy sensors that produce high-fidelity images and intelligence to the decision-maker, and is incredibly responsive,” Col. Douglas Lee, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in northern California, told Air Force, a trade publication. The 9th Reconnaissance Wing maintains the U-2s and deploys them to overseas bases such as Al Dhafra.
But as recently as two years ago, the Air Force had hoped to quickly retire all 33 of the U-2s. The plan at the time was to replace the U-2s with new Global Hawk spy drones. The Global Hawk can’t carry all the sensors that the U-2 does, but with no human aboard needing to eat or sleep, it can stay aloft far longer than the manned plane can. The Air Force was willing to trade the U-2’s power and flexibility for the Global Hawk’s endurance and hoped to save money by shrinking the overall spy-plane fleet.
But then came ISIS. With militants hiding out in tens of thousands of square miles of desert and blending in with local populations, the demand for intelligence skyrocketed. ISIS’s rise compelled the Air Force to reverse its plans to partially stand down its fleet of roughly 300 Predator and Reaper drones in order to allow their operators to rest and train.
Likewise, and with a little encouragement from Congress, the Air Force decided to keep the U-2 and the Global Hawk in the inventory until at least 2019. Not coincidentally, Air Forces Central Command released video of a Global Hawk—apparently also at Al Dhafra—the same day it released the U-2 video.
But as ISIS swept through Iraq and Syria and later gained a toehold in Libya, even that larger spy force proved inadequate. “If there’s one piece that I know that the Combined Joint Task Force and the ground component ask for is more ISR,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Brown told reporters in May, using the military acronym for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
“What it helps me to do is develop targets so we can strike at the same time as we develop those targets,” Brown added. “The more ISR I have, I can minimize the risk to civilian casualties and continue the precision air campaign that we have.”
The push for more intelligence on ISIS has compelled the Pentagon to deploy to the Middle East pretty much every spy plane it can muster. Operating without official acknowledgement and often in disguise, the aircraft aren’t always obvious to casual observers. Indeed, the presence in Iraq of one incognito U.S. Army spy plane became evident only after it crashed in Kurdish territory in March.
The U-2s have operated under their own veil of secrecy. The Air Force’s recent video release lifts that veil, just a little.