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A Cold War Spy Plane Just Killed Its Robot Drone Replacement

Illustration for article titled A Cold War Spy Plane Just Killed Its Robot Drone Replacement

The Lockheed U-2 was designed to keep tabs on the Soviet Union over half a century ago. The RQ-4 Global Hawk drone was designed to replace this 50s antique. But how strange you are, fate! The U-2's replacing its successor.


Reuters reports the Air Force is scrapping the Global Hawk program—which cost the US around $13 billion and ran far over budget (surprise!), in favor of keeping the U-2 flying into 2020. The Global Hawk is a hell of a machine, capable of sweeping the ground from 60,000 feet in the air—for an entire day at a time—with infrared sensors, picking out things to later blow up and eavesdropping on chatter.


But it didn't work that well. The NYT says the Pentagon showed the drone had serious shortcomings compared to its vintage predecessor:

The new Air Force model was not reliable enough to provide sustained surveillance. Parts failed frequently, and the equipment for intercepting telephone and radio conversations, a vital requirement for replacing the U-2, had trouble pinpointing the source of the calls.

Illustration for article titled A Cold War Spy Plane Just Killed Its Robot Drone Replacement

That questionable spying didn't come cheap—over $200 million for each drone, compared to around a tenth of that for a manned U-2. Add in serious military budget cuts, and you've got yourself an easy deathblow to deal.


But wait, aren't drones supposed to be the future? Yes—which is why this is a little jarring. As mentioned, the U-2 dates back to an era when the White House was terrified of Moscow. A lot's changed since then. Robots rule the battlefield, and that's never turning otherwise. There might be a culture of airmen who feel threatened by the futuristic tide—the RQ-4 just graduated its first class of pilots with no airplane experience, ever—but it's a futile recalcitrance. The drones will win, just as soon as we can afford them. And, you know, they work better than planes from when Elvis was 20. [Reuters, NYT]

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I hope this reinforces the need for real pilots instead of our overreliance on automation and gizmos. Nothing can replace a human pilot, at least not for the for the forseeable future.