At the center of the latest U.S.-China militarytensions in the South China Sea was a reconnaissance jet better known for its key role in the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union.
The U-2 spy plane flew from South Korea to monitor Chinese military exercises near the Paracel Islands, prompting the People’s Liberation Army to fire four medium-range ballistic missiles into the disputed body of water. The missiles landed harmlessly in the sea.
The American aircraft, known as the Dragon Lady, didn’t cross into Chinese airspace after leaving Osan Air Base in South Korea, according to a statement from U.S. Air Force Pacific Forces to Bloomberg News. China, which claims a huge swath of the disputed waters, called the move a provocation, comments dismissed by U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien as “manufactured claims.”
“No nation may unilaterally establish a No Fly Zone,” the U.S. Air Force said in its statement.
The Trump administration has sought to rally opposition to China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, the likeliest military flashpoint between Washington and Beijing. Chinese officials regularly protest U.S. “freedom of navigation operations” in the region, where Beijing has sought to bolster its claims by building on uninhabited islands various other nations — including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia — view as their territory, and on subsurface reefs that are normally not the provenance of any nation.
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The continued use of the U-2, despite constellations of spy satellites and other advanced technology introduced since the airplane was first produced in the mid-1950s, in such a high-stakes mission demonstrates the aircraft’s remarkable resilience.
Best known for the May 1, 1960, shoot-down and capture of CIA pilot Captain Gary Powers, who was flying nearly 70,000 feet over Soviet airspace, the needle-nosed jet has been a mainstay of U.S. reconnaissance for decades. It flew over Cuba in October 1962 and took the first photos of offensive missile sites that led to the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war.
There are still more than 30 U-2 planes in the Air Force inventory.
This week’s flight is a reminder that the U-2 performs functions that still can’t be entirely matched by technology such as the unmanned Global Hawk drone, which can loiter at 60,000 feet on 34-hour missions, or U.S. imaging or eavesdropping satellites in geostationary orbit which can peer down on the same slice of territory indefinitely.
Still considered a landmark achievement in U.S. espionage, the plane was originally built by Lockheed Corp., a predecessor ofLockheed Martin Corp., and flown by the CIA. In contrast to the sometimes decade-long process to build current U.S. weapons systems, the U-2 went from proposal to production in less than two years in the mid-1950s.
Former CIA Director George Tenet called the plane’s development a “revolution in intelligence,” according to a 2018 book on the aircraft’s history by Monte Reel, a Bloomberg News journalist.
With congressional help, the U-2 survived recent Air Force attempts to retire the plane. And upgrades continue. Lockheed in April received a $50 million contract to install an updated avionics suite and a new mission computer designed for open architecture mission systems.
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Since the planes fly at such high altitude, U-2 pilots wear pressurized flight suits similar those donned by astronauts as they help gather a variety of multi-spectral, electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar imagery for storage or real-time transmission to analysts via air-to-ground or air-to-satellite links. The plane also takes high-resolution, broad-area imagery with an optical bar camera developed and analyzed after landing.
The current version also carries a signals intelligence payload that can provide indications of recent activity in areas of interest, and reveal efforts to conceal the placement or true nature of man-made objects, according to the Air Force.
In a sign of how the venerable jet has adapted to current threats, Lockheed says the U-2s have surveyed dirt patterns in Iraq and Afghanistan for signs of makeshift mines and improved explosive devices.
During the 1990-91 U.S. Gulf War build-up and invasion, U-2s were used to track Iraqi troop and armor surges, assess bomb damage, and monitor a massive oil spill in the Persian Gulf. Pilots alerted ground stations of Scud missile launches and guided fighter aircraft to destroy Scud launchers, according to an Air Force history. After the Gulf War, some U-2s stayed in Saudi Arabia to monitor Iraqi compliance with the peace agreement.
The South Korean base the plane took off from this week is home to the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron, which has spent almost 45 years launching U-2s to collect imagery and signals intelligence on North Korea and likely Chinese sites. The parent 9th Reconnaissance Wing is based at Beale Air Force Base in California.
— With assistance by Justin Sink
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