On its first overflight mission of the Soviet Union 62 years ago, the Lockheed U-2 was tracked for the entire mission.
It would take the Soviets another four years to acquire the technology to shoot down the U-2, as Central Intelligence Agency pilot Francis Gary Powers learned to his cost over Sverdlovsk on May Day.
Somehow, the U-2 is not only still in the US Air Force inventory decades later, it is now being groomed to play an even more central role in the US military’s vast aerial intelligence-gathering operations.
To be sure, the U-2S fleet today bears only a silhouette similarity to Powers’ ill-fated C-model jet, featuring a more powerful engine, modern avionics and one of the world’s most impressive sensor suites. Now, Lockheed Martin is proposing to greatly expand the Dragon Lady’s role: instead of merely collecting information, the U-2S will morph yet again into an airborne command and control centre.
But this will be handled by a new ultra-powerful computer – the “Einstein Box” – not battle management operatives. It is a capability that answers the US military’s call for innovation based on new software applications, rather than expensive new flying platforms.
Fifty-eight years since the Soviet Union destroyed the U-2’s perceived invincibility, the Dragon Lady may be more relevant than ever.