U-2 spy plane played key role in Afghanistan operation

Powerful sensors, signals interception complement arsenal of drones

U.S., NATO and Afghan forces recently involved in the largest joint military operation of the eight-year war in Afghanistan received a helping hand locating improvised explosive devices from the U-2 spy plane, reports Christopher Drew at the New York Times.

Originally scheduled for retirement four years ago, the U-2 is getting a new lease on life as it shifts from hunting nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs. In its new role, the Cold-War era spy craft is using its powerful sensors to outshine the intelligence-gathering capabilities of some of the sleekest aircraft in the Defense Department’s arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles.

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First flown in 1956 to track Soviet missile deployments, the U-2 became famous when Gary Powers was shot down on a surveillance mission over the Soviet Union in 1960. In Afghanistan, U-2 pilots assisting with the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province this month were in direct radio contact with troops on the ground from their position 70,000 feet above the battlefield. The goal of the operation was to expel the Taliban from one of their strongholds in the province.

From nearly 13 miles up, the U-2’s sensors can detect small disturbances in the dirt, thus providing yet another method for U.S. forces to find IEDs. In the weeks leading up to the Marjah offensive, which involved 15,000 troops, several of the 32 remaining U-2s found nearly 150 possible mines in roads and helicopter landing areas. The information was passed on to Marines, who detonated the IEDs before using those areas.

Marine officers used photographs from the U-2’s old film cameras, which provide panoramic images at such high resolution that they can show insurgent footpaths. In addition, the U-2s newer digital cameras beamed back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines thought they might be vulnerable.

Besides its ability to detect IEDs, the U-2 can also pick up signals from insurgent phone conversations that mountains would otherwise block. That information is then used to dispatch Predator and Reaper UAVs, which can capture video images and fire missiles. The most reliable intelligence comes when the U-2 and the UAVs are concentrated over the same area, Air Force officials said.

The Air Force began scheduling more frequent U-2 flights over Afghanistan in early 2009, and since then, the flights have become a fluid part of daily battle plans.

The Global Hawk UAV, which is slated to replace the U-2, can fly as high as its manned counterpart and stay aloft for 24 hours or longer. Like the U-2, the Global Hawk has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, a large Global Hawk model that could also intercept communications has been delayed. Therefore, the U-2 is likely to remain in service until 2013, Air Force officials said.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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