Drones Are Finally Driving the U-2 Spy Plane Out of Business
The U.S. military is becoming more digital, specialized and automated. By Tim Fernholz
When US president Obama unveils his 2015 spending proposal in March, it is expected to be the first in more than a decade to shift defense spending off its post-9/11 war footing.
That means cutting the number of active-duty soldiers to 440,000, slightly fewer than in the late nineties, limiting new naval vessels and freezing pay for top officers. The move has defense officials fearful of creating “a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations,” but Americans might actually prefer such an armed force.
The best metaphor for the whole plan is a proposal to end the use of the U-2 spy plane, in service since 1955…
…and replace it with a flying robot called the Global Hawk:
Lockheed Martin’s U-2 spy plane was originally designed to fly at the edge of space, above Soviet radar and fighter jets, to surveil Russia during the Cold War. One was famously shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, captured, leading to an early diplomatic contretemps in the proxy conflict. The plane would prove its usefulness in virtually every American conflict since that time, despite improvements in satellite reconnaissance and attempts to replace it with newer technology—at least, reportedly, until now.
While the Global Hawk has been subject to cost overruns in the past and faced opposition from Air Force brass, Northrop’s lobbying efforts and the desire to keep American pilots out of harm’s way look to have won out here. Unable to afford both reconnaissance planes, the Air Force has opted for modernity. The drone can stay aloft much longer than the U-2, even though there is skepticism about its ability to do everything the U-2 can.
But, with plans also to cut the A-10 fighter jet (designed as a Soviet tank killer) and funding pushes toward cyber security and elite commando units, the US military is becoming more digital, specialized, and automated—just like the rest of the world.
To keep these cuts in perspective with the rest of the world, consider this chart of worldwide defense spending in 2012. The US spends more than the next 10 largest militaries, most of whom are US allies:
US defense spending in 2014 is currently projected by the Congressional Budget Office to come in around $604 billion, which could mean it is spending less than its 10 nearest peers—but only by a little.