The Pentagon has released its budget request for 2016, and among the items being digested by the D.C.-based defense community is the reprieve of the storied U-2 spy plane. First built in 1955, the U-2 is, next to the B-52 bomber, the longest-lived airplane in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. Today’s U-2s are dramatically modified from their original version, being larger and with far more sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities. Crucially, they offer greater flexibility than satellites. Plus, on balance, they still remain cheaper to operate than drones.
These capabilities are what keep the Dragon Lady in the air. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, the military is actually relying more on the U-2 today than in the past. While the Air Force flip-flopped on keeping or retiring the U-2 fleet, top commanders have testified to its usefulness in an increasingly unstable world. The head of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula asserted that the U-2 right now is the best reconnaissance platform for use along the Demilitarized Zone, something even more important given the unpredictability of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Similarly, with NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove now calling for supplying Ukrainian forces with defensive weapons in light of new Russian attacks in the east of that country, the U-2 can provide needed, real-time intelligence of Russian troop movements. The same could be said for keeping an eye on sudden developments in Libya or tracking conflict associated with groups like Boko Haram.
So, a bit of good news. Parts of the world continue to become more unstable, but for now, Washington will maintain one unique capability of keeping an eye on trouble spots. Whether that prevents more strategic surprise, let alone leads to better defense policy, is another matter, but stripping away part of our ability to know what’s going on in the world would have been a cause for alarm.