February 14, 2012: The U.S. Air Force, faced with substantial budget cuts, has cancelled orders for 18 RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs. At the same time the retirement of its U-2S reconnaissance aircraft has been delayed once again. Last year it was decided to keep the U-2 in service until 2016. Now the U-2 will keep flying until 2020, or later. The reason is the continued failure of the RQ-4 to prove it can replace the manned U-2. Moreover, the air force has been battling the RQ-4 manufacturer for years over reliability, capability, and price issues. The basic problem was that the Global Hawk was never able to come close to the capabilities and reliability of the U-2. Although the U-2, which entered service 56 years ago, carries a pilot it also carries more weight and has more than twice as much electrical power (for more capable sensors) than the RQ-4. The air force will keep over 50 RQ-4s in service but the cancelled RQ-4s are a wakeup call to the manufacturer to do better or lose even more sales.
It wasn't just the U.S. Air Force that was having problems with the RQ-4. South Korea wanted to buy several of them but eventually backed off as the price kept going up and delivery dates became increasingly vague. Instead of having their own long range recon aircraft, South Korea is looking for smaller substitutes. This might be Israeli Herons or American Reapers. Meanwhile, U-2s will continue to watch North Korea. The three American U-2s stationed in South Korea generally carry out one sortie a day. The cameras and electronic eavesdropping gear can record or photograph North Korean military activity up to a hundred kilometers north of the DMZ (the DeMilitarized Zone) that separates the two Koreas. In an emergency two or even all three U-2s can be put in the air.
Its popularity is running the U-2s ragged. Several U-2s have been in service over 40 years and spent nearly 30,000 hours in the air. One of these aircraft had made three belly (landing gear up) landings, requiring extensive rebuilding after each incident.
With a range of over 11,000 kilometers, the 18 ton U-2s typically fly missions 12 hours long. All U-2s have been upgraded to the Block 20 standard, so they can be kept in service until the end of this decade. Or at least until the 13 ton Global Hawk or some other UAV is completely debugged and available in sufficient quantity to replace it.
The U-2 has been in service since 1955 and only 86 were built, of which 26 remain in service. Less than 900 pilots have qualified to fly the U-2 in that time. The heavy use of the U-2 has been hard on the pilots. Missions can be as long as 12 hours and pilots operate in a cockpit pressurized to conditions found at 9,600 meters (30,000 feet). This puts more strain on the pilot's body. That, and the fact that they breathe pure oxygen while up there, means they tend to be completely exhausted after returning from a long mission. U-2s also fly missions daily over the Middle East and Afghanistan.