THE MIDDLE EAST — At a sprawling desert airbase in the Middle East — one not far from Iran and the geo-strategically critical Strait of Hormuz — I saw the past and future in aerial reconnaissance cross-paths.
This instructive moment, however, was symbolically inverted. In the Hollywood version, the future takes off and the past lands, rolling off into the sunset. Just the opposite occurred. The past, a black U-2 spy plane, took off and shot skyward with a characteristic steep climb, an altitude grabber. The future, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, landed and glided to a stop.
Don’t let the glide fool you. I’m not sure where the remotely piloted Global Hawk had flown that day, but the platform has the range to reach Central Asia or Iraq, and a radar signature small enough to approach and explore dicey airspace in between.
Don’t let its looks fool you, either. The Global Hawk’s oblong, egg-like head — reminiscent of another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Predator — houses a sophisticated computer brain, robotic eyes and first-class digital nerves. Unlike the Predator, the Global Hawk is jet-powered, and it’s big.
The U-2 is no beauty, either, though over time my opinion of the Dragonlady’s looks has changed for the better. On the ground, its huge, thin wings are awkward, but once aloft the black spy plane has the stubborn elegance of an ocean-hopping seabird.
I wonder if that’s the way Kelly Johnson and his Lockheed Skunk Works engineers envisioned the U-2 when they designed it in the 1950s — a manned albatross with the altitude and range to take pictures of the Soviet Union so we could count the Kremlin’s missiles, bombers and tanks.
The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the U-2 on its silent vigil helped defeat it, as did its snazzy, hypersonic offspring, the SR-71, another example of Skunk Works genius.
Information gleaned from these planes and satellites first helped contain the Cold War (for example, we learned there was no bomber gap), then win it.
The downside of the U-2, however, hit the headlines in 1960, when U-2 CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. A spy plane with a man in it runs that risk — all manned aircraft do.
This is one of the upsides of UAVs like the Global Hawk, Predator and the new, improved attack UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper. When a UAV goes down, we don’t lose an American pilot to death, injury or the humiliation and torture of a Hanoi Hilton.
Another upside is cost. UAVs are pricey, but less so than manned planes. UAVs also show their worth in counter-insurgency warfare. They can loiter over sensitive areas, such as Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, monitoring terrorist and guerrilla infiltration routes. Armed UAVs can immediately engage the infiltrators. Armed Predators have successfully attacked senior al-Qaida operatives in what the terrorists believed were safe havens.
There are senior aviators who suffer from cockpit nostalgia and a decade ago pooh-poohed unmanned platforms. Those fellows, however, are increasingly marginal. Current UAVs are simply too useful, and the next-generation will be extraordinarily agile and lethal.
But will UAVs completely replace piloted aircraft? I don’t see that, not for quite some time. The Air Force’s smart guys talk about a “mix” of piloted high-performance aircraft, like the F-22, in a strike or operational “package” with UAVs. Commercial aircraft use autopilots to fly from point to point, but do passengers want to completely remove pilots from commercial cockpits? Commercial flying isn’t combat, but immediate human presence and judgment — while significantly augmentable — are not quite fully replaceable
UAVs also present the United States with potential strategic problems. Since the end of World War II American military planners — and for that matter, most of the planners in the rest of the world — have assumed the United States would quickly obtain air superiority.
We not only had the technology, we had an edge in pilot quality.
Robotic fighter aircraft cropping up in the air fleets of adversaries could change that assumption. Software for robotic aircraft is improving. The United States must get prepared to face a robot “fighter ace” — one that will challenge American air dominance.