OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AP) — As a sleek, black U-2 roared back from a mission, Pontiac muscle cars zoomed along the runway to help it touch down using a low-tech method dating back more than a half-century to when this Cold War-era aircraft was on the cutting edge.
“It’s notorious for being hard to land,” the pilot said after climbing out of the cockpit.
But the legendary U-2 “Dragon Lady” remains one of Washington’s most prized possessions on the Cold War’s last hot front. Pumped up by a $1 billion overhaul, a trio of these piloted aircraft are proving they still can compete with the most futuristic drones on a crucial mission: spying on North Korea.
For more than 35 years, the U-2 has been one of Washington’s most reliable windows into military movements inside the secretive nation. Unlike satellites, they can be redirected at short notice to loiter over target areas. Last month, the U.S. Air Force postponed at least until 2020 any plans to replace them with costlier, unmanned Global Hawks.
As the world watches for signs of instability during North Korea’s transition to a new leadership, the U-2 operations are as important — or more so — than ever.
The Korean Peninsula’s precarious peace was underscored this month when North Korea, angry over South Korean artillery drills and joint maneuvers with the United States, warned it was prepared for “total war” and “merciless retaliatory strikes” if necessary. The rhetoric did not mention the U-2s, but North Korea frequently has slammed their spy missions as belligerent.
Other than complain, however, it can do little to stop the flights.
Three of the long-winged, gliderlike aircraft are deployed to Osan Air Base, just 50 miles from the border. The Air Force refuses to comment on where they go, but in a rare interview and tour of operations, the squadron commander told the Associated Press that U-2 missions are generally flown out of Osan every day.
“We are the tripwire, the eyes and ears of Korea,” he said on condition he be identified for security reasons only by his rank and first name, Lt. Col. Deric. “Our extreme-high-altitude and intelligence capabilities make us extremely sought after.”
Formerly flown by the CIA, the U-2 became a Cold War icon during the international drama following the Soviet Union’s capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960. The program since has shifted to the Air Force, but it’s still hush-hush. The pilots’ full names are secret.
More than half of North Korea’s 1.2 million-man army is believed to be stationed south of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and the U-2 flights can provide a detailed picture of troop movements, fortifications and any other signs of potential trouble north of the DMZ.
The United States, which signed a truce with North Korea in 1953 to end three years of fighting, keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea.
North Korea has cited the U.S. military presence on Korean soil as a key reason behind its drive to build nuclear weapons and has said the planes prove the U.S. is plotting another war. Amid high tensions two years ago, it said the use of the U-2 showed how “hellbent” the U.S. is on spying on its military facilities.
Osan squadron pilots fly once every four days on missions of up to 12 hours.
The U-2 flies at altitudes of more than 70,000 feet — double the height of a typical commercial jetliner. That height makes it nearly impossible to intercept or track and gives it the ability to peer down on a broader target area than a lower-flying aircraft.