The U-2 Has a Dysfunctional Relationship With Drones
The U.S. Air Force tried and failed to replace the high-flying Dragon Lady
The history of the mighty U-2 Dragon Lady surveillance plane, and its future, is so tightly intertwined with drones that the death of one has often meant the survival of the other.
In fact, today’s modern U-2 fleet was born of a dead drone project in the 1970s called Compass Cope, a first-generation remotely-piloted aircraft program designed to replace the Dragon Lady with an unmanned alternative.
The U-2 first flew in 1955, and versions of that original spy plane — built to peek behind the Iron Curtain — continue to be the Air Force’s go-to plane for high-altitude photographic and signals intelligence gathering.
As you read this, a Dragon Lady is probably checking on North Korea’s nuclear facilities right now … while another snoops on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria from 70,000 feet.
Headquartered at Beale Air Force Base in California, the U-2 fleet has had a long and illustrious career. But the aerial spies have been continually shadowed by unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that promise to be cheaper, more effective and less risky to operate.
Few drones come close to matching the manned spy plane’s capabilities. Compass Cope, it turns out, is just one of many examples of the Lockheed Martin-built U-2’s long, dysfunctional relationship with reconnaissance drones.
Early unmanned alternatives to the Dragon Lady included the turboprop-powered Ling-Temco-Vought XQM-93, and Ryan’s C-130-launched AQM-91 Firefly.
But the first true unmanned rival to the U-2 was Compass Cope. In 1974, the program culminated in a high-altitude flyoff between the experimental Boeing YQM-94 and the Teledyne Ryan YQM-98 over the Californian desert.
The program set endurance records that stood for 26 years, and paved the technological way for Northrop Grumman to produce the Air Force’s modern RQ-4 Global Hawk.
The Compass Cope drones were crude by modern standards. An operator controlled them with radio signals from a ground station. One crashed, and there were several near mid-air collisions.
But for the first time, the Air Force was seriously considering replacing pilots with a remote-controlled system — and eliminating weighty and expensive life support equipment.
“The tests did not pass off without incident and Boeing cites this as an advantage of having a pilot in the loop,” Flight International reported in 1974.
“The pilot avoided two collisions, one with a student pilot and another with a U.S. Army helicopter, and saved the aircraft when a relay failed. Most control functions are programmed, but the pilot can take over manual control in an emergency.”
Despite many successes and world-firsts, Air Force generals who despised the idea of removing pilots from cockpits had other plans for Compass Cope.
The flying branch mercilessly aborted the program in 1977, less than a year after selecting Boeing’s prototype aircraft — known as Cope-B — for further development and production.
A high-level “steering committee” appointed to explore alternative reconnaissance platforms recommended re-opening the Skunk Works U-2 production plant at Palmdale to produce more manned spy planes.
Congress approved the proposal in 1979, and the Air Force produced 37 new spy planes designated TR-1 (now U-2S) between 1981 and 1989. This temporarily sidelined further development of drone technology.
So where are the Compass Cope prototypes today?
They’re museum exhibits. Boeing’s YQM-94 Cope-B is resting at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Teledyne Ryan’s YQM-98 Cope-R is sitting outdoors at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
But now, 38 years after Compass Cope’s termination, the U-2 is locked in a cage fight with another drone replacement, Northrop’s Global Hawk.
The Air Force decided in 2005 that the RQ-4 was the high-flying spy plane of choice. Had the flying branch got its way, Lockheed’s U-2 would have ended up in the Boneyard as just another expensive relic of the Cold War.
The flying branch started starving the Skunk Works airplane of funding for upgrades and modifications, and diverted millions of dollars into improving the performance of the Global Hawk.
The unmanned aircraft had poor mission availability rates back then, and still can’t carry some important sensors.
The service reversed course in 2012, opting to cancel the Global Hawk in favor of the U-2, but an intense lobbying campaign kept the aircraft flying. Last year, the Pentagon flip-flopped again — this time opting to retire the U-2 beginning in 2016 in favor of the RQ-4.
The national intelligence agencies, theater commanders and lawmakers revolted against the decision. In 2015, the Air Force re-instated funding for the Dragon Lady in its budget proposal.
Funding for the U-2 now extends through 2019. But the debate over which high-altitude reconnaissance jet should go to the scrapyard — and when — continues to rage. Automatic budget cuts known as sequestration would eliminate funding for the U-2 and the service’s 11 radar-carrying Block 40 Global Hawks.
Northrop and Lockheed got into a public spat in March when new Air Force data showed that the Global Hawk costs half as much as the U-2 to operate in fiscal year 2014. The Global Hawk cost $14,876 per flight hour in FY-14 compared to the U-2, which cost $32,031.
The Air Force spent $363 million operating and supporting 33 Global Hawks last year, and spent $536 million operating 32 manned Dragon Ladies. In 2012 — when the flying branch decided to chop the Global Hawk — the two aircraft cost about the same to operate.
Now the cost balance has reversed.
J. Scott Winstead — former 69th Reconnaissance Group chief turned Lockheed U-2 business development manager — said the Dragon Lady collected twice as many target images last year compared to the Global Hawk.
“When you take an all-encompassing approach to comparing platforms, it is clear why the combatant commanders selected U-2 as their preferred high-altitude [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platform last year,” Winstead said.
He said the U-2 flies higher, faster, its sensors can see further and the aircraft are strategically located closer to primary target areas.
But Northrop argues that range and persistence counts for something, too. In this category, the Global Hawk excels. In April 2000, Flight International reported that the drone broke the 26-hour endurance record set by the Compass Cope YQM-98 in 1974, flying for 31.5 hours from Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Today, the aircraft can fly for more than 34 hours. That’s nearly three times longer than the U-2.
“You do not know when and where the next crisis, threat or natural disaster will hit,” said Northrop RQ-4 program chief Mick Jaggers. “The value of Global Hawk is, it doesn’t matter where events happen. Global Hawk is the only high altitude platform that can reach distant locations without a deployment requirement.”
Chances are, neither the Global Hawk or the U-2 are going anywhere. Both aircraft have powerful backers in Congress and the Pentagon, and the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base is continuing to fly both aircraft as normal.
The Air Force is also working on new drones in the black projects world that should someday supersede both platforms, such as the stealthy Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel — or “Wraith” — and Northrop Grumman’s RQ-180.
There is undoubtedly an optionally-manned aircraft in play, known only as the “Penetrating ISR” aircraft, which the service is pursuing.
Should the Global Hawk and U-2 survive this next budget cycle, the tale of the drone versus the pilot will continue into another chapter.