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Interview: Martin Streetly Discusses the U-2 Spy Planes to be Employed in the Weapons Inspections in Iraq

All Things Considered: February 11, 2003

About the U-2


Hearing in the news about U-2 overflights and the dispute with Iraq about permitting U-2 flights resonates with many Americans, and not just those who are fans of the band U2. The U-2 was the plane that Francis Gary Powers was flying over the Soviet Union back in May 1960, when he was shot down. The US, at first, denied it was conducting surveillance flights and then had to admit it, ultimately swapping a Russian spy for Powers. In 1962, the US photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba were taken from a U-2.

Martin Streetly is a British defense analyst and editor of Jane's Electronic Mission Aircraft. And, Mr. Streetly, first, is this spy plane today essentially the same plane that Gary Powers was flying more than 40 years ago?

Mr. MARTIN STREETLY (Editor, Jane's Electronic Mission Aircraft): Not really. U-2s can be divided into two generations. And the aeroplane that will be doing the work at the moment emerged in the mid-'60s as a beefed-up version of the U-2 as it had flown over Russia. It was originally procured by the Central Intelligence Agency and subsequently passed to the US Air Force.

SIEGEL: Is it a larger plane than the other one?

Mr. STREETLY: It is. It is larger than the original. It can fly higher. In its latest version, which is the U-2 Sierra, it is a very capable platform.

SIEGEL: When we say fly higher, we're really talking about high-altitude flights here.

Mr. STREETLY: Well, the exact figures, as you might expect, are classified. But the general belief is that this aeroplane can get up to and operate at altitudes of something like 65 to 67,000 feet, which is a very long way up.

SIEGEL: I've read that the pilots who fly these planes have to wear a full-pressure suit...


SIEGEL: ...actually when they go up.

Mr. STREETLY: Yes, they do. They do have to wear a pressure suit.

SIEGEL: Well, let's say that this plane were inserted into the mission of arms inspections in Iraq. What could it do? How would it be used that would conceivably make the process more effective?

Mr. STREETLY: Well, the great advantage that the U-2 has in present day is that it is a very flexible tool, and it can carry a significant payload. I would guess that the aeroplanes that are being used over Iraq presently are equipped with a form of radar, are equipped with signals intelligence gear and possibly electro-optic imaging systems. Now the U-2 can carry one or two out of the three systems that I have mentioned simultaneously, which allows it to have virtually all-weather, day-night capability to detect things. But most importantly, at least one of the aeroplanes which have been deployed to the region is equipped with a steerable satellite dish, which means that the information that it gathers during the course of the mission can be linked directly back to the US for analysis during the course of the mission via satellite.

SIEGEL: So is it real-time vision, then? I mean, can you actually sit on the ground and watch what the U-2 is seeing?

Mr. STREETLY: Real-time is a moveable feast. I would rather say near real-time. It's certainly not measured in days. I would suggest it's probably measured in hours.

SIEGEL: Which of these features is the advantage over, say, satellite imaging that you were told was very sophisticated?

Mr. STREETLY: The U-2 offers a number of advantages. If you think about the way that a satellite orbits the Earth, it is very easy for anybody to predict where and when the satellite is going to appear over the horizon at a particular point on the Earth's surface and how long it is going to take to travel over that point. With something like a U-2, which has onboard a human being, it can fly an unexpected flight path. It's not tied in the same way as that satellite is to its orbit. It has that element of unpredictability. And because the U-2 can carry a number of sensor systems simultaneously, it can defeat things like cloud. If it has its radar onboard, it can see through cloud, whereas an imaging satellite, if there is a cloud layer between it and the target, it can't see the target. A U-2 radar can.

SIEGEL: Martin Streetly, thank you very much for talking with us today.


SIEGEL: Martin Streetly, defense analyst and editor of Jane's Electronic Mission Aircraft.

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