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Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the as-long-as-bono's-hearing-aid-lasts dept.

The Military 266

Hugh Pickens writes "For more than half a century, the CIA and US military have relied on a skinny, sinister-looking black jet, first designed during the Eisenhower administration at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works in Burbank, headed by legendary chief engineer Clarence L. 'Kelly' Johnson, to penetrate deep behind enemy lines for vital intelligence-gathering missions. Although the plane is perhaps best known for being shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 with the subsequent capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 continues to play a critical role in national security today, hunting Al Qaeda forces in the Middle East. The fleet of 33 U-2s was supposed to be replaced in the next few years with RQ-4 Global Hawks, but the Pentagon now proposes delaying the U-2's retirement as part of Defense Department cutbacks." (Read on, below.)Hugh Pickens continues: "The Global Hawk drone, costing an estimated cost of $176 million each, has 'priced itself out of the niche (PDF), in terms of taking pictures in the air,' says Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. 'That's a disappointment for us, but that's the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment.' The Pentagon has determined that operating the U-2 will be cheaper for the foreseeable future but it won't disclose how much operating the U-2s will cost for security reasons. 'It's incredible to think that these planes are flying,' says Francis Gary Powers Jr., Powers' son and founder of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. 'You'd think another spy plane, or satellite or drone would come along by now to replace it.'"

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Wait, what? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851433)

The Department of Defense is making cutbacks? I can't believe what I'm hearing!

Re:Wait, what? (2)

Truekaiser (724672) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851511)

Might just be a ploy to get a discount on the replacement..

Re:Wait, what? (1)

countertrolling (1585477) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851573)

Most of the cutbacks are in salaries and benefits. Things that only affect the grunts.

Just like the mars rover they keep working (4, Informative)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851437)

Now why are buying cheap crap for chain the falls apart real fast in other areas?

Re:Just like the mars rover they keep working (1)

roy23 (159499) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851473)

yes

Frstoy Piss (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851439)

Got a rosty

There's nothing to change (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851441)

It can't. Aerodynamics is pretty much a settled science, so is turbine technology, Newton's Laws, and kerosene. There's a reason why 40 year old planes still look like planes today, as opposed to 40 year old computers.

So I'm always surprised when Space Nutters think there are magical materials and fantasy technologies out there...

Re:There's nothing to change (3, Insightful)

kheldan (1460303) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851595)

Ah, so the human race has progressed materials science as far as it will go? We already know about all possible alloys, composites, and construction techniques? Science has unraveled all the mysteries of the Universe, all the way down through the quantum level? No possible advances in propulsion technology? Think again.

Re:There's nothing to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851931)

Yes. Do you think there are more chemical elements than the ones we've found? Do you think there are more fundamental forces or particles? Really? That's your position? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. You have none. What you have is faith at best, religion at worst.

Please explain why a 747 from 1969 flies with the same engines and fuel, and takes the same time to fly the same distance at the same altitude as today?

When the oil's gone, you think sci-fi wishes and geek fantasies will fuel airplanes?

We don't even have Concorde anymore, but we'll fly to the stars?

Just how delusional are you?

Re:There's nothing to change (5, Informative)

PacoCheezdom (615361) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852167)

Please explain why a 747 from 1969 flies with the same engines and fuel, and takes the same time to fly the same distance at the same altitude as today?

Just about everything in that sentence is wrong.

A 747 from 1969 doesn't have the same engines as a modern 747, nor does it take the same time to fly the same distance. A 747-100 had a maximum range of 4500 NM, a top speed of mach .8 and burned fuel at an average rate of 15 970 kg / hr. The 747-400 which is currently in service has a base range of 6400 NM (and up to 8000 NM for the 747-ER, nearly double!), burns about half as much fuel per hour, and cruises at about mach .85. And the 747-400 was first introduced 30 years ago! I don't have the stats for the newest iteration, the 747-8i, but Boeing claims [mediaroom.com] it will be "be 30% quieter, 16% more fuel-efficient, and have 13% lower seat-mile costs with nearly the same cost per trip" than the 400.

And that's without going into the increases in capacity, passenger comfort, and avionics that have happened in the past 50 years. This is just minor advancements on an old airframe; the biggest applications of advancements in materials science and aircraft design are for clean-sheet designs like the 787 or new military aircraft like drones.

The point of this article, though, is that the military-industrial complex's days of cozy, no-bid contracts and inflated vehicle costs are quickly coming to an end, not that we'll never be able to design better aircraft than Kelly Johnson's team did in the 1950s.

Re:There's nothing to change (4, Interesting)

DesScorp (410532) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852021)

Ah, so the human race has progressed materials science as far as it will go? We already know about all possible alloys, composites, and construction techniques? Science has unraveled all the mysteries of the Universe, all the way down through the quantum level? No possible advances in propulsion technology? Think again.

Materials science is the only place left to go. We saw the future, and it was unaffordable. Flying cars? Jetpacks? Supersonic airliners? All do-able. All prohibitively expensive and inefficient and unsuited for mass productions. You should read an article called The End of the Future [nationalreview.com] . It sums up something I've suspected for quite some time: while we've made advances we could never dream about... computers, biotech, etc... the advances we did dream about never came, and never will (at least not in our lifetimes or those of our children or grandchildren). All those dreams of colonizing planets, traveling to other stars, floating cities, etc, ran into the hard shoals of reality, both physical and fiscal. Humanity is now actually slowing down [popsci.com] , after a century of constantly going faster. 50 years from now, whatever Boeing is producing at it's plant will look largely like what they've been making since the 707; a fat tube with slightly swept wings and jet engines in pods underneath. It may be made of plastics and have advanced computers, but it'll carry around the same number of people and go about as fast as current airliners. The future... the one we wanted... really did die.

Re:There's nothing to change (2, Insightful)

tomhath (637240) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851615)

There's plenty they could do differently today. Stealth technology, carbon fiber, etc. But all of that is expensive. Do you put new tires on the old Ford and drive it to work for another year, or buy a new Ferrari? Depends on your budget.

Re:There's nothing to change (4, Informative)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851683)

There's plenty they could do differently today. Stealth technology, carbon fiber, etc. But all of that is expensive. Do you put new tires on the old Ford and drive it to work for another year, or buy a new Ferrari? Depends on your budget.

They already had a Ferrari in the SR-71, but chose to retire it and kept the old Ford.

Re:There's nothing to change (2)

minkie (814488) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851641)

I'll go along with us not knowing a whole lot more about aerodynamics today compared to 60 years ago, but materials have improved. Carbon fiber has trumped the aluminum-titanium-unobtainium alloys they had then, both for strength/weight ratio and the ease of making complex shapes. Obviously, the avionics are a whole different world, but I assume you were talking airframes.

Consider, for example, the Russian Soyuz rocket. It looks like something out of the 60's, because it *is* something out of the 60's. And the Russians are still flying them for the much the same reason we're still flying the U-2. Because it still works. Maybe it's not perfect, but after 1700 launches, they're pretty much got it figured out. The Space Shuttle was a lot sexier, but when it came to putting mass into orbit cheaply and reliably, Soyuz won hands down.

Re:There's nothing to change (2)

j33px0r (722130) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851815)

Going on the idea of having it already figured out, consider the parts & labor.

It has to be cheaper & less time consuming to create in install the parts on a U-2 than a newer high tech jet. Less parts, less to go wrong. Strap a new high-tech camera & radar on that old timer and off she goes!

I see them flying weekly (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851443)

In the communities just outside of edwards air force base I see a U-2 flying over at least once a week. Heck saw a B-1 flying a couple of weeks ago but they are becoming rarer, B-2 at least once a month. Sadly though the F-117 has become much much rarer probably due to the newer fighters.

Re:I see them flying weekly (3, Informative)

Tacticus.v1 (1102137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851611)

I'd say that's because the 117 has been retired for 4 years

At first glance... (5, Funny)

Third Position (1725934) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851445)

When I first saw the headline, I thought they were referring to the band.

Re:At first glance... (2)

alienzed (732782) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851503)

So did I and I only clicked the link because I highly doubted what the headline was suggesting.

That would have been . . . (1)

wrencherd (865833) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851643)

Aging U-2 Will Rock On Into the Next Decade

Re:That would have been . . . (2)

RDW (41497) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852125)

...and it still hasn't found what it's looking for.

More importantly, they can keep the details fudged (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851447)

Sure, they don't have any replacement for the U-2, that's all they have, and the cameras aren't getting any better.

Nope, no surveillance to worry about, no Aurora, no Panopticon, nothing to worry about at all.

XYZ.

Re:More importantly, they can keep the details fud (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851691)

Who says the cameras aren't getting better?

Re:More importantly, they can keep the details fud (1)

PhunkySchtuff (208108) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852059)

Well, they clearly are, and that's the point.
There are no publicly announced replacements for the U2, it's the best we've got that everyone knows about.

No, we definitely don't have anything better.

In Soviet Russia... (-1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851449)

In Soviet Russia, U-2 shoot YOU down.

Look, all rockers age (5, Funny)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851453)

this doesn't mean they still can't put on a good show. "Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade" is just an inflammatory headline. Bono and The Edge may have a few wrinkles now but they got...

what?

oh, never mind

Oh thank God (4, Insightful)

whargoul (932206) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851455)

For a minute there I thought the article was referring to that awful group from Ireland.

Re:Oh thank God (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851523)

Well they too will fly on into the next decade.

Re:Oh thank God (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851567)

Well they too will fly on into the next decade.

I think "hobble" might be a more appropriate verb.

Re:Oh thank God (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851579)

NNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!

Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING.[/quote]
THAT'S BECUASE I WAS YELLING, FUCK YOU VERY MUCH!

Re:Oh thank God (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851843)

It sounded more like an anguished scream to me.

Yeah (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851459)

"Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah!"

-Bono (aka Biggest Turd in the world)

Re:Yeah (1)

whargoul (932206) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851469)

But he's still just #2

Ironic timing. My boss worked on the U-2... (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851461)

... in his first job as an engineer. He retired yesterday.

U-2 mission (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851481)

I flew it during the cold war and the first Gulf war. It's mission has changed dramatically and it's become very relevant to today's mission in Afghanistan. I don't see it going away for a long time!

Re:U-2 mission (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851833)

I flew it during the cold war and the first Gulf war. It's mission has changed dramatically and it's become very relevant to today's mission in Afghanistan. I don't see it going away for a long time!

Seems like the same mission, just a different place.

In areas where the country of interest has no anti-air that can reach it, its still probably the cheapest and most versatile.
I would imagine the on-board cameras and other equipment can be upgraded fairly easy as advances in technology allow
smaller and smaller packaging.

Supposedly only 35 left, one wonders how long the spare parts hold out.
Several on the ground at Beale [google.com] .

It's time to give it up (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851487)

Bono and the boys are no longer relevant. Pseudo pop-rock garbage for the past few albums. I can't imagine another 10+ years of this.

Re:It's time to give it up (2)

PhunkySchtuff (208108) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852075)

It's time to give it up (Score:3, Insightful)?

Funny maybe, but insightful? Seriously...

Cuts (1, Interesting)

clarkkent09 (1104833) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851491)

It's a shame cause RQ-4 Global Hawks are sexy. But yeah, the days of spending crazy money on cool toys are over, at least for now. I'm all for strong national defense but I'm sure that our military can do the same job with a lot less money if they really put their mind to it.

Re:Cuts (3, Interesting)

Sir_Sri (199544) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851707)

It's not like they couldn't get some global hawks (or similar) but maybe... not so many? It's like aircraft carriers. Ok so you have 11 supercarriers, (+ 2 under construction). Would US standing in the world be significantly harmed if you only ran 9 or 10 for a few years? Or just 9 or 10 permanently. Given that the only other big carriers in existence or under construction are french and british, and they'll have a total of 4 between them, it seems unlikely that the US is in a serious risk for say, the next decade.

The U2 is still in business because it's cheap, and gets the job done against enemies who can't or don't care to fight back. So trying to decide on a replacement is a difficult exercise in knowing the future. The chinese and russians can (and have) shot them down, but they're more big scale satellite intelligence operations anyway. Day to day movement of chinese or russian forces is mostly low priority because they aren't about to shoot at you, and if they do, using 10 year old global hawks might not be any better a plan than 50 year old U2's.

Re:Cuts (2)

cavreader (1903280) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851749)

Most of the advanced military technology in use today is first generation which usually means more expensive. If a particular technology proves useful and reliable the manufacturing process can be made more efficient to lower the cost. A great deal of the expense when creating new technology is building the tools necessary to actually move the technology from the drafting table and computer modeling to the real world. Once those tools and plants are in place it can also lower the costs. PCs were relatively expensive when they first hit the market but the introduction of commodity hardware and better manufacturing processes played a factor in bringing the costs down. Just building the chip manufacturing plants was expensive and while they are constantly being updated they are not building from scratch every time a new chip design comes out. Cell phones used to be $1000+ when they first hit the market but now we have cheap throw away phones and even the newest cell phones are either free or very cheap depending on your service plan. Most of the defense budget cuts are in the operational areas such as reducing the number of troops. Leaving Iraq and hopefully Afghanistan will save a lot of money. I doubt there will ever come a time when the government won't fund a promising new military technology because of the budget. It is private companies that develop new technologies and pitch their ideas to the military. If the technology is worthwhile and the US refuses to fund the development there are other countries in the world who might. Projects such as the rail gun (EM based weaponry), EMP generators to take out electronic infrastructure without doing any physical damage, integrated drone networks (Constellation program), and the X-37B program used for providing orbital capabilities are just a few examples of ongoing technology development that won't suffer from budget cuts. And don't forget about those programs under development that are not in the public domain. Even the military can keep a secret occasionally. Funding new military technology development can also lead to releasing the technology for non-military uses and a lot of the defense contractors count on this to generate future revenue.

Re:Cuts (4, Insightful)

PhunkySchtuff (208108) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852097)

I actually wanted to read what you wrote there, but it really needs some line breaks.

Either put in <br> or post as Plain Old Text (in the Options button below the text-entry box) and you'll make it a lot easier for people to read.

U2 (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851515)

Must not confuse Lockheed U-2 with the band from Dublin, Ireland.

Nice to see that the United States is still using some of its older aircraft. I thought I saw one in a museum once. U2 is a nice plane.

Re:U2 (1)

QQBoss (2527196) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851767)

There is a beat up hunk of a U-2 sitting in the Beijing Military Museum (well worth the visit for military buffs, and free as an added bonus). Seems they shot one down many years ago. I don't think it was one that belonged to the USA, though, but probably instead was one flown with an ROC flag (the USA transferred 10 or so U-2s to Taiwan many years back). I wasn't able to make out the markings, though... it was really beat up and displayed where you couldn't get a good look at it from the side.

Hard to Believe (3, Funny)

NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851517)

Wow, I thought the SR-71 replaced the U-2 decades ago; and the SR-71 has been retired for years. Why can't the government just use Google Earth, Maps, etc? It would be a kudo for the 'do no evil' company. Serge could hire Bono to declare, "U-2 replaced by YouTube."

Why not google Earth? (5, Insightful)

tlambert (566799) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851529)

latency.

-- Terry

Re:Why not google Earth? (2)

TheCouchPotatoFamine (628797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851585)

The whooshing sound you heard was /not/ a U-2 flying overhead...

Re:Why not google Earth? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851613)

No, latency is a good answer. At the rate that Google is going, it will only be a few years before they can slurp as much data from the world as the NSA, CIA and the various other three letter agencies. And the analysts will get relevant advertisements as a bonus.

Just hang on a bit, it's not the the international situation will be a whole lot different. In the wise words of Tom Robbins [amazon.com] , it is 'desperate, as usual'.

Re:Why not google Earth? (1)

TheCouchPotatoFamine (628797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851807)

respect, if only for mentioning 'ol Tom. Almost every GF I've had seems like a character from his books.. that out of the way, i imagine the google results are delayed on purpose... of course, "google ogle" will probably be a product for the analysts shortly..

Re:Why not google Earth? (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851851)

No, latency is a good answer. At the rate that Google is going, it will only be a few years before they can slurp as much data from the world as the NSA, CIA and the various other three letter agencies. And the analysts will get relevant advertisements as a bonus.

Just hang on a bit, it's not the the international situation will be a whole lot different. In the wise words of Tom Robbins [amazon.com] , it is 'desperate, as usual'.

I'm sure you just couldn't pass up the chance for a drive by Google blast, but even you, if honest, would realize this will never be true.
They will never get that fast.
Google buy/beg/or barters most of their images, which are useless in tracking a car full of jihadists running thru the back roads, and
nothing like an orbiting UT or Global Hawk.

Re:Why not google Earth? (1)

tlambert (566799) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851717)

Really, the amount of time between a delta and an event is small.

Re:Why not google Earth? (0)

tlambert (566799) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851771)

First priorities:

I am a self-described physicist. I take a lot of things into account that "the Internet generation" does not. I do not have a covert channel so ignore that, if you can.

PS: Math wins, universe does not.

PPS: Not the bloom.

Re:Why not google Earth? (1)

turing_m (1030530) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851687)

What it lacks in latency, it makes up in bandwidth.

Re:Hard to Believe (5, Informative)

osu-neko (2604) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851751)

Wow, I thought the SR-71 replaced the U-2 decades ago...

SR-71 wasn't really a U-2 replacement, just a different tool in the toolbox, that made it better suited for some tasks (getting someplace quickly and not getting shot down) and not as good at others (staying airborne in an area for a long time watching, operating within a reasonable budget). It's not surprising the U-2 has lasted so long. It was very well designed for what it does from the start, and much like the same-era B-52s we still keep flying, remains pretty damn good at what it needs to do to this day.

They better retire them soon (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851539)

I was once taken to a secret testing facility in a place Where the Streets Have No Name, to examine the current state of the U2. I was not impressed with its performance. At first it had a Rattle and Hum, and after extensive testing exploded in an Unforgettable Fire. There'll be Helter Skelter if they don't get this under control.

I asked the official who was giving me the tour what they planned on doing about it. He said "we plan to replace it, but we Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For". However, he continued to show Pride in the current model.

I didn't like doing this on a Sunday, Bloody Sunday, so I told him I was leaving for a Discotheque. With or Without You.

Re:They better retire them soon (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851627)

Interesting.

Were you able to see that Magnificent machine?

I bet if you flew in it, you might get Vertigo at high altitudes - then again maybe not because of its slow flight.

Were there chaser aircraft? And did they say, "I Will Follow"?

After all, these are for War. I heard one pilot after a successful mission state,"I Can't Stop to Dance! I got another mission coming up With or Without You!" He then went home to his wife Gloria.

The guy had a low opinion of Europe though. He called "Zooropa".

Anyway, enough about him I don't want to get Out of Control with these Stories for Boys.

Curious about savings (2)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851587)

I know the US military is being cut back substantially; but, given that so much military activity this past decade was off-budget (e.g cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), I wonder how much the cutbacks will impact the official US debt, if at all?

I realize debt is debt, whether it's officially acknowledged or not; but since this seems to be primarily sold as budget reduction I'm curious to see how it's being handled.

Re:Curious about savings (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851625)

Look at the numbers. Only the rate of increase is being slowed. The numbers you are seeing as 'savings' are just meaningless fluffies. Makes 'Hollywood Accounting' look real.

Re:Curious about savings (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851951)

Roger Rabbit for Secretary of the Treasury!

Re:Curious about savings (1)

Sir_Sri (199544) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851747)

Just because it was off the regular budget doesn't mean it wasn't in the overall budget or included in the US total debt (which is not exactly accurate because the gov't borrows money in blocks, but spends it continuously so there's some disconnect there).

In terms of how much it saves, well that's harder to say. How many global hawks would they have bought, what's the operating cost per year (assuming they filled the same roles as the U2's) etc. If you trim the budget by 10% that goes a long way to eating up the existing US deficit, but finding 10% in cuts is going to make a lot of campaign donors unhappy.

The overall plan for the debt though, is the same as everyone else does. You creep your deficit down, grow the economy, which shrinks the relative value of the debt and just keep servicing the interest and hope it shrinks to relative unimportance.

Medal of Honor (-1)

b4upoo (166390) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851597)

A pilot willing to go up in a U2 either needs a Medal of Honor or a mental hospital. Wonderful titanium skins that must have gaps due to expansion when heated with fuel dripping from the seams is not the kind of craft that a man should ever be asked to fly. It is a flying coffin waiting to happen. Is the pilot brave or stupid or just brainwashed? Our troops deserve better than a 50 year old design.

Re:Medal of Honor (2)

mikael_j (106439) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851621)

Expanding skin and dripping fuel? Sounds more like the SR-71...

Re:Medal of Honor (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851631)

Pretty sure that's the SR71 you're thinking of; the U2 is subsonic and probably doesn't have the same expansion issues.

Re:Medal of Honor (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851693)

Oh fuck off, you're talking about the SR-71, and we all know that you (like the rest of us) would jump at the chance to joyride that baby. STFU with the sour grapes.

Re:Medal of Honor (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852001)

U2s have none of these problems. Its tricky to land, but otherwise a very docile craft with a pretty good safety record.

Even Gary Power's UT was not at max altitude when shot down, because the S-75 missile can't get that high, its ceiling at that time was 20,000 m (66,000 ft).

Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (5, Interesting)

trims (10010) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851599)

They were re-classifed as TR-1(x) models in the mid-80s.

The U-2 is not longer a "traditional" spy-plane (i.e. photoreconnaissance of fixed points of interest). It had all the high-res photography equipment replaced with side-band IR and wide-angle low-light cameras. Bascially, they turned it from a "oooh, look at that neat weapons complex" single-frame photographer into a massive photo Hoover (or Vax, for our Brit friends).

Turns out, the U-2 is massively useful here: incredibly high service ceiling, newer semi-stealth improvements in materials, and a batshit crazy loiter time. It outlived the SR-71 because it turns out point-recon is better done by LEO satellites, and the SR-71 can't loiter. Or go slow enough to photograph a wide area well.

I'm kinda surprised that the Global Hawks are more expensive than the TR-1, though, given that the TR-1 now required non-trivial maintenance, and human costs to fly. Then again, this is 1950s technology, and the B-52 shows that if you can figure out where it works, well, high-tech doesn't always mean better mission success.

Now, if only they'd cancel those stupid Littoral Combat Ship programs (yeah, we're building 2 production versions, cause we couldn't decide which sucked less), we could look at some significant savings...

-Erik

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851635)

But... stealth! :(

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (2)

GrumblyStuff (870046) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851983)

I prefer a more overt posterior.

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851725)

Not all were classified as TR-1 in the 80s, just the ones produced in the 80s. In the 90s, they were all reclassified as U-2. It is a great airplane, and extremely useful. I suspect it will be around for a while, since it flies higher, has a greater payload, and more flexible than the Global Hawk (ie. it doesn't need to be reprogrammed to be re-tasked it in flight). FYI, I have over 600 hours at the controls of the U-2, flying over Iraq, Korea, Bosnia, and other well know hot spots. The current U-2Ss are completely different than the U-2Rs that I flew. I personally knew 4 of the folks that the Times article referenced as being killed on an operational U-2 mission. Long live the dragon lady, the pilots that fly here, and the outstanding crews that maintain her!

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851741)

Nobody calls a vacuum cleaner a vax. Unless it's people older than anyone I've ever met. Hoover is quite common.

-- A Brit.

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851823)

The TR-1 was a different design from the original U-2 and is from the 1980s. While it has much the same overall appearance the TR-1 is much larger, about 30% in length and wingspan, and has, AFAIK, no interchangeable parts at all with the U-2 from the 1950s.

The TR-1s were initially referred to as U-2R which leads to the confusion of the two aircraft types.

So the aircraft the article refers to are not 50 year old, but merely 30-40 year old and were designed _after_ the SR-71.

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851859)

I have no idea what a TR-1 is, but the official US Airforce page still calls them U-2s or TU-2s.
http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=129 [af.mil]

Maybe you are talking about NASA's versions.

Re:Technically, they're not U-2s anymore... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851879)

NASA flies the ER-2.

It's a U-2 by a different name, just like the TR-1 was.

It's still viable thanks to modern jet engines. (4, Informative)

MtViewGuy (197597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851617)

If I remember correctly, the U-2 some years ago swapped out the original engines for essentially modified B-2 bomber engines (the F-118), which cut the fuel consumption and allowed for longer flights at altitudes above 70,000 feet. I believe that with the J57 and J75 engines, the U-2 maxed out at around 73,000 feet; the F118 could probably take it to over 76,000 feet.

Re:It's still viable thanks to modern jet engines. (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851867)

If I remember correctly, the U-2 some years ago swapped out the original engines for essentially modified B-2 bomber engines (the F-118), which cut the fuel consumption and allowed for longer flights at altitudes above 70,000 feet. I believe that with the J57 and J75 engines, the U-2 maxed out at around 73,000 feet; the F118 could probably take it to over 76,000 feet.

Correct on the engines. But the Air Force [af.mil] will only admit to 70,000 feet. (wink wink).

Politics and technology (4, Insightful)

caseih (160668) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851623)

I really enjoyed Ben Rich's book on Skunk Works. One thing that stood out to me is that the real reason we're still flying the U-2 is that Dick Chaney killed the SR-71 program, which was kind of an evolution of the U-2 program. Chaney argued that spy satellites replaced the need for airplanes to do surveillance. Turns out the reason he said that was because he was associated with companies that were into spy satellites and he didn't want the SR-71 to compete for that market. Such a shame that politics played such a large role in the neutering of America's capabilities. Most sad of all was that McNamara ordered the destruction of all plans and tooling for the SR-71. Even if the SR-71 was too expensive to fly, that's still a real crime that much of what was learned in that program has been lost.

The U-2 is probably much much cheaper to operate than the SR-71, so it's possible the SR-71 would have died anyway. But certainly politics played a huge role in its demise.

Sadly, in the current political climate it's doubtful Skunk Works would ever produce anything like the U-2, the SR-71, and the stealth fighter. Maybe it's a blessing though. The government seems hell bent on spying on even American citizens. I dunno.

http://www.blackbirds.net/sr71/fallblackbird.html [blackbirds.net]
https://www.google.com/search?q=Skunk+Works%3A+A+Personal+Memoir+of+My+Years+of+Lockheed [google.com]

Re:Politics and technology (1)

I Read Good (2348294) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851991)

I'd say cheaper. Also, SR-71 flew much higher and faster than U-2. The article hinted at the U-2 sniffing stuff from the atmosphere. Perhaps SR-71 flies too fast for that. I recall reading something about how the thing was engineered so that it leaked fuel below a certain speed. This is all speculation, but I think that beyond price, U-2 can do things that satalites/SR-71 cannot. Sidenote: can anyone else smell the butt-fury from NG? They're pissed about this.

If it ain't broke .. (1)

n5vb (587569) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851657)

.. don't fix it. ;)

The U2 is still flying for much the same reason that the B-52 is still flying: both platforms work, and there's been no reason to improve either of them. (The B-52 is planned to stay in inventory until 2050, and there may well be 100 year old planes still in service at that point.)

Re:If it ain't broke .. (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851769)

I think Gary Powers would disagree with your assessment of the need to improve the U-2 platform.

SR-71 (1, Interesting)

Bensam123 (1340765) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851659)

It does really make you wonder why the SR-71 is retired and these flying bricks are still flying. The SR-71 can fly higher, faster, longer, stealthier, has better instrumentation, and lets face it, it's just a heck of a lot cooler as it's standard practice to avoid surface to air missile was just fly faster... The SR-71 was and still is a engineering marvel compared to everything around including this hunk of crap.

This could easily be replaced by a UAV or even standard aircraft. I can only imagine the only reason it being around is the airforce is playing favorites with contracts.

Re:SR-71 (4, Interesting)

toygeek (473120) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851835)

Actually, the U2 can't be replaced so easily. Yes, they could *make* one but it took a huge team to make the U2 work, and Kelly Johnson was no dummy with its design. The problem is that you have to justify spending the time and money and materials to make a new one that works so much better that its worth the expenditure.

Oh, and the SR-71 was engineered for somewhere around Mach 5 or 6. Its stated top speed was Mach 3, but lots of planes can do Mach 3, and they don't need all the fancy stuff the '71 did. And, I talked to a retired traffic controller who once saw a '71 light up a civilian transponder so traffic could be vectored around it (it had an emergency apparently), they clocked it around 4000mph. Kelly Johnson wouldn't authorize the throttles to be opened full, he wasn't sure what would happen. Some neat stuff about the blackbird.

Re:SR-71 (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851907)

SR-71 can't loiter, is not particularly stealthy in this day and age, and flies way too fast to use the modern imaging systems in use.
Stealth is not that important in the theater the U2 is working, the enemy there has nothing that can reach it anyway.

These days flying over and snapping a picture is not that important.
Loitering and sending low-light high quality (extremely high), digital imagery and live video it what matters.

 

Re:SR-71 (1)

riverat1 (1048260) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851937)

Flying brick is not how I would describe the U-2. It is built like a glider and floats so well it is difficult to land. On the other hand it's the SR-71 that would drop like a brick if you lost the engines. And I think you can run several U-2 missions for the cost of one SR-71 mission.

Tu-95 Bear (2)

o'reor (581921) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851665)

Well, if it's still relevant, why decommission it ?

After all, the Russian Air Force has decided to maintain their own 1950's bombers, Tupolev Tu-95 "Bears", [wikipedia.org] at least till 2040. Because they're fast, cheap to fly, and fuel-efficient.

In a time where oil is scarce and budgets are tight, I'd be happy as a citizen if my own country were to make such a sensible choice. Instead of paying billions for outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling Rafales that no other country wants to buy...

Re:Tu-95 Bear (1)

caseih (160668) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851885)

Kind of funny that you mention outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling Rafales as that's exactly what the Tu-95s are as well (as are B-52s). They certainly aren't particularly fuel efficient by any stretch of the imagination. And they are super crazy loud. But just as in cars, buying a new car solely because it has increased fuel efficiency isn't an economically sound choice. In short Russia flies them for the same reasons your country flies "outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling" Rafales. They have them now, they know how to fly them, and it's cheaper to keep flying them then to develop a new bomber.

Re:Tu-95 Bear (1)

the linux geek (799780) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852041)

The US is keeping the B-52 alive until at least 2030, too (although in relatively small numbers.)

SR-71 (1)

macraig (621737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851675)

The Lockheed-Martin Skunkworks' SR-71 Blackbird was *the* aircraft designed to replace the U-2. It's sad that it can't fill that role now because of how it was used as a political bargaining chip. If Gary Powers had flown one of those, he'd be alive today because the missile simply never would have caught up with him before it ran out of fuel. If you're flying an aircraft that can't be shot down by any missile, isn't that even better than an unmanned UAV that can be shot down? Pilot or no, if the aircraft is shot down it's still a complete loss that costs big money to replace.

Re:SR-71 (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851755)

Powers did not die when he was shot down, he was taken prisoner and exchanged in a prisoner transfer.

Re:SR-71 (1)

macraig (621737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851891)

My point is the same: the plane was shot down, asset lost.

Re:SR-71 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851811)

Gary Powers was not killed by the Soviets. He was captured and given back to the US. From Wikipedia, "Francis Gary Powers died in 1977 in an accident. He had been covering bush fires in Santa Barbara County. As he returned, his Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, registered N4TV, ran out of fuel and crashed in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area several miles short of Burbank Airport."

Re:SR-71 (1)

macraig (621737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851905)

Quit nitpicking at tangents. My point is the same: the plane was shot down, asset lost.

Re:SR-71 (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851927)

An aircraft that can't do the job is a total waste of money.
You can't follow a pickup load of jihadists across a winding mountain road at mach 3.

Re:SR-71 (2)

riverat1 (1048260) | more than 2 years ago | (#38852079)

Gary Powers survived his U-2 being shot down. He died in the crash of a helicopter he was piloting in 1977. However Major Rudolph Anderson died when his U-2 was shot down over Cuba in October of 1962. How many U-2's could you build for the cost of one SR-71? Lockheed's contract for the first 20 U-2's was $22 million dollars.

James May On The Moon (1)

ArchieBunker (132337) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851697)

If you haven't already watched this special then I urge you to do so at once. James May is given the opportunity to take a ride in a U-2 and films the entire thing. The video is incredible. They are flying on the edge of the atmosphere and when he looks up its just black space. Looking out you can see the curvature of the earth and its blue atmosphere. The sight is so awe inspiring that James starts to get emotional.

SR-71 (1)

modmans2ndcoming (929661) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851739)

If they were going to keep the U-2 around that long, they should have commissioned teh SR-71 and we could have had a much more effective machine for the last 30 years.

Re:SR-71 (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851883)

Cost-benefit - while both are spy planes, the SR-71 was an expensive fast recon choice while the U-2 is cheaper to operate and better at loitering which is what we generally want for our modern needs.

Other old planes are still useful (1)

cvtan (752695) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851897)

The A-10 Warthog (Thunderbolt) was designed in the 70's and is supposed to remain in service until 2028! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairchild_Republic_A-10_Thunderbolt_II#Replacement [wikipedia.org]

Re:Other old planes are still useful (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38851919)

The Warthog is a classic design, but it is obviously an American design. Only America would think to design the airplane around the gun, not the other way around. That it works and works well is purely an accident.

Thanks guys (4, Funny)

AbRASiON (589899) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851979)

I just spent 90 minutes reading about aircraft on wikipedia!

U2 (2)

CSMoran (1577071) | more than 2 years ago | (#38851981)

Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade

... in mysterious ways.

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