US commanders worldwide have an insatiable appetite for ISR to better understand emerging threats.
Facing budget cuts, the Obama administration wants to scrap its fleet of 33 U-2 spy planes — the backbone of the strategic reconnaissance force — and rely instead on the longer-range Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.
It’s a bad call. There are newer classified aircraft, but the U-2 remains America’s most capable, flexible and survivable spy plane.
While the Global Hawk can remain on station longer than the U-2, it flies lower, slower and lacks the U-2’s higher fidelity and tailorable sensors. It was never intended to replace the U-2, and it is unlikely to achieve the same capability no matter how much is spent.
They are complementary and should be better integrated with other reconnaissance systems across the force. In a dangerous world where the US is reluctant to deploy its troops, good intelligence is essential.
The U-2 should remain in service until replaced by a sufficient number of stealthy, long-endurance aircraft that can carry more capable systems over contested airspace.
One option: Keep the U-2 and cut 4,400 back-office support billets that could be eliminated without hurting combat readiness.
Such hard trade-offs will be necessary to ensure America retains its superior intelligence edge into the future on a flat budget.