WASHINGTON — The U-2 spy plane outlasted the Cold War, outlived its successor and proved crucial a half-century ago when two superpowers were on the brink of nuclear war.
But defense cuts now threaten to knock the high-flying reconnaissance aircraft out of the sky.
The Air Force wants to gradually retire the fleet of 32 "Dragon Lady" planes, which can soar to an altitude of 70,000 feet, collect intelligence on North Korea and Russia and rapidly send the data to U.S. commanders. That's a critical capability, given North Korea's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, and Russia's emboldened president, Vladimir Putin.
The Air Force says the unmanned aerial vehicle Global Hawk can do the job, and in an era of smaller, deficit-driven budgets, the Pentagon cannot afford both the plane and the drone.
Skeptical lawmakers have challenged the Air Force's proposal to ground the resilient U-2, the long-winged, all-weather manned aircraft with sensors and cameras. Called "Angel" at its inception because it could fly so high, the U-2 has been in operation since 1955 and provided the evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, helping to avert a nuclear war.
As Congress begins work next week in writing the defense policy bill, lawmakers will weigh the Air Force proposal and whether to take initial steps to save some of the planes. Any move would require a trade-off as lawmakers work within budget limits. Proponents of the plane recently got a strong endorsement from the top commander in South Korea.
Pressed by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, about potential gaps with the retirement of the U-2, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that while he understands the budget requirements, "the U-2 provides some unique capability that at least presently the Global Hawk won't provide, and it will be a loss in intelligence that's very important to our indicators and warnings."
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said he was concerned about the fate of the U-2, especially in light of the fast-growing population in Seoul pushing close to the border and millions "all within range of North Korean artillery."
Scaparrotti said the plane "gives him the ability to look deep into Korea and the U-2 ... is very important to him," McKeon recently told reporters.
The Air Force is proposing spending $598 million on the U-2 in the 2015 budget and then phasing out the aircraft, a reversal from two years ago when the plane won out over the drone. The proposed budget would invest $1.77 billion through 2023 in modernizing a version of the Northrop-Grumman-built Global Hawk with additional sensors and other updates.
"The operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30 have come down," Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters last month. "It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk. We'll keep them and gradually retire the U-2s."
The Lockheed Martin-built aircraft is long associated with the decades of U.S-Soviet rivalry.
In 1960, Francis Gary Powers was piloting a U-2 when he was shot down over the Soviet Union and captured. Data collected from planes that penetrated the Soviet Union before the shoot down provided unique information to the Eisenhower administration, undercutting claims of Soviet strength while providing details on the Soviet's nuclear program.
Last August, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released numerous CIA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that described the significance of the U-2 program and trace its history.
In a May 28, 1960, memo, Allen Dulles, then-director of Central Intelligence, wrote that before the U-2, the United States was faced "with the constant risk of exposing ourselves to enemy attack or of needlessly expending a great deal of money and effort on misdirected military preparations of our own."
The U-2, Dulles wrote, provided a vast amount of information on Soviet bombers, air defenses, missiles and atomic energy.
Chris Pocock, a British author who has written several books on the U-2, said the plane is still perceived as a "Cold War warrior," but with a relatively new airframe and other modern technology, it's a very different aircraft. It survived and operated even after its successor, the SR71, was retired.
"The U-2 today is more a tactical intelligence gatherer," Pocock said in an interview. "It supports ground operations on a daily basis, flying over Afghanistan, flying around Korea, flying in the eastern Mediterranean, doing all those things every day, and it's actually not only providing intelligence that is analyzed for the benefit of those ground troops, but it's actually in contact with those ground troops in real time."
The aircraft is based at Beale Air Force Base in the district of Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Other planes are based in Guam and at classified locations in Europe and in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Within the industry, there is speculation that the Air Force is willing to retire the U-2 because it has a secret program developing another high-altitude intelligence gathering aircraft. Pocock said that plane doesn't appear to be operational yet.
"If and when it is ready, it may only be available in small numbers for very, very specific high priority missions," he said.
Two years ago, Congress balked at Air Force efforts to retire a version of the Global Hawk, shifting money in the budget and keeping the program alive. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula said this only complicates Pentagon efforts to decide what weapons stay or go.
"Who's best informed? That's one of the challenges here. This is not just about U-2 and Global Hawk. This is about quite frankly, resource allocation and priorities that Congress is in the middle of and at the heart of," Deptula said.