Warthogs Go Extinct, U-2’s Fly Off Into The Sunset, And Other Highlights Of The Pentagon’s New Budget

As the United States got its bearings after World War II, it began building a massive spy plane designed to slip into Soviet airspace without being detected to snap photos of military bases, government buildings, and other facilities of interest. The ambitious effort was kept secret at first, with the CIA providing cover stories for ...

Air Force photo
Air Force photo
Air Force photo

As the United States got its bearings after World War II, it began building a massive spy plane designed to slip into Soviet airspace without being detected to snap photos of military bases, government buildings, and other facilities of interest. The ambitious effort was kept secret at first, with the CIA providing cover stories for aspects of the program to make U.S. intentions unclear. It was also risky: U.S. officials feared that if the aircraft was shot down in Soviet airspace, it could be the spark that ignited armed conflict between the two superpowers.

Fifty years later, the Pentagon is pressing to retire the U-2 "Dragon Lady." Unveiling their controversial fiscal 2015 budget Monday, top Defense Department officials said they intended to basically replace the historic aircraft with more of the plus-sized Global Hawk drones. The drone can't do everything the U-2 can -- the drone doesn't have as many sensors, for instance, so it can't monitor as much from the sky at the same time as the plane -- but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Global Hawk was a better option for the future.

The U-2 move had been predicted by some analysts in recent weeks. Still, it's a somewhat surprising reversal given that the Pentagon had tried to kill the Global Hawk two years ago after determining it was "not operationally effective" and too expensive to fly. The Defense Department favored keeping the U-2 in service then, saying that they could not afford to fly both the spy plane and the spy drone given budget cuts. Clearly, that changed over time. The Pentagon's plan calls for all U-2s to be retired, although it isn't clear how quickly.

As the United States got its bearings after World War II, it began building a massive spy plane designed to slip into Soviet airspace without being detected to snap photos of military bases, government buildings, and other facilities of interest. The ambitious effort was kept secret at first, with the CIA providing cover stories for aspects of the program to make U.S. intentions unclear. It was also risky: U.S. officials feared that if the aircraft was shot down in Soviet airspace, it could be the spark that ignited armed conflict between the two superpowers.

Fifty years later, the Pentagon is pressing to retire the U-2 "Dragon Lady." Unveiling their controversial fiscal 2015 budget Monday, top Defense Department officials said they intended to basically replace the historic aircraft with more of the plus-sized Global Hawk drones. The drone can’t do everything the U-2 can — the drone doesn’t have as many sensors, for instance, so it can’t monitor as much from the sky at the same time as the plane — but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Global Hawk was a better option for the future.

The U-2 move had been predicted by some analysts in recent weeks. Still, it’s a somewhat surprising reversal given that the Pentagon had tried to kill the Global Hawk two years ago after determining it was "not operationally effective" and too expensive to fly. The Defense Department favored keeping the U-2 in service then, saying that they could not afford to fly both the spy plane and the spy drone given budget cuts. Clearly, that changed over time. The Pentagon’s plan calls for all U-2s to be retired, although it isn’t clear how quickly.

"This decision was a close call, as DoD had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. "But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs. With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future."

The U-2 isn’t the only Cold War-era plane in the Pentagon’s crosshairs. Hagel also announced Monday that the military intends to kill the pugnacious A-10, lovingly known as the "Warthog." The plane was designed to provide close-air support to U.S. ground forces by destroying tanks and other armored vehicles, but has an uncertain future as the Pentagon scrounges for money to fund its next-generation jet, the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

"Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force’s long-standing modernization plan — which called for replacing the A-10s with the more capable F-35 in the early 2020s," Hagel said.

A-10 fans on Capitol Hill already have launched a fight to save the plane. Thirty-five members of Congress told the Pentagon in the fall that they would oppose any measure to kill the plane — in part because the Air National Guard flies it from bases in many of their congressional districts. A-10 advocates also point out that the plane, unlike the far more advanced F-35, has a strong record of reliability. On Monday, though, Hagel said the Warthog’s time had passed.

"The Warthog is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision," he said. "But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft."

Hagel also said Monday that the Air Force will slow the growth of its armed drone programs, especially the Reaper and Predator. The move won’t likely change much, Hagel said — instead of increasing to a force that can fly 65 around-the-clock combat patrols, it will be able to fly 55, with flexibility to fly up to 71 if needed. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said last fall that reducing to "in the vicinity of 45" combat air patrols after the war in Afghanistan would be a good idea. Air Force officials did not have an immediate answer on whether that means fewer drones are necessary, or whether operations will simply dwindle.

Other military equipment and programs got a reprieve in the Pentagon’s budget proposal. In one example, the military had considered retiring the massive USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, but the White House decided against it in recent weeks to cut off a political fight, according to the Wall Street Journal. Still, Hagel warned Monday that its future could yet be in jeopardy. If the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration are in place for the fiscal 2016 budget, the secretary said, the Navy will have to retire the carrier.

"That would leave the Navy with 10 carrier strike groups," Hagel said. "But keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost $6 billion — so we would have no other choice than to retire her should sequestration-level cuts be re-imposed."

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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