Over Japan, Drones Herald the End for a Perennial Spy Plane

By Dan Gettinger

On Thursday, the United States and Japan signed a new security agreement that broadened the cooperation between the militaries of the two nations. As part of the agreement, the United States will establish a drone base at an undisclosed location in Japan. Up to four Northrop Grumman Global Hawk long-range surveillance drones will be posted to the base. China will likely read the pact as an aggressive reposturing by the United States and an interference in China’s bitter dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The tension over reconnaissance technology brings to mind a moment during the Cold War when the deployment of high-altitude surveillance aircraft altered the strategic balance between the Soviet Union and the United States.

When the U-2 was introduced in 1956, the United States was desperate for intelligence about the military capabilities of the Soviet Union. In By Any Means Necessary: America’s Secret Air War in the Cold War, William E. Burrows describes the numerous attempts by American airmen to penetrate the Soviet Union to conduct aerial reconnaissance. Many of these attempts were thwarted by the increasingly sophisticated Russian radar capabilities.

The aim of the U-2 project was to create an aircraft that could cruise at 70,000 ft, higher than any other aircraft and out of reach of missile defenses. Allen Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, was at first hesitant to embrace high altitude reconnaissance flights as a means of collecting intelligence over human collection methods. In 1954, Edwin H. Land, the founder and CEO of Polaroid Corporation, urged Dulles to develop the aircraft as a way of modernizing the CIA.  In a letter to Dulles on November 5, 1954, Land wrote, “We told you that this seems to us the kind of action and technique that is right for the contemporary version of the CIA; a modern and scientific way for an Agency that is supposed to be looking, to do its looking.” In addition, he argued, military-operated reconnaissance flights during peacetime could provoke a war, and the CIA could be useful for bypassing the problem.

A U-2 spy plane being test in the base that eventually became Area 51. Credit: CIA/AP
A U-2 spy plane being test in the base that eventually became Area 51. Credit: CIA/AP

Dulles was finally convinced, and with the reluctant blessing of President Eisenhower, he put project AQUATONE into motion. It is a seminal moment in the history of the CIA– from then on, the Agency began to place greater emphasis on technological platforms of intelligence collection. By 1957, U-2 reconnaissance aircraft were deployed to the American Naval Air Station in Atsugi, Japan, according to a declassified letter from Allen Dulles to the chief of staff of the Air Force. Flying from Atsugi, as well as bases in Turkey and Pakistan, CIA U-2 aircraft conducted the most comprehensive aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union prior to the development of satellite technology. “Airfields previously unknown, army training bases previously unknown, industrial complexes of a size heretofore unsuspected were revealed, and so on down through a long list of various types of significant activities,” wrote CIA official Herbert Miller regarding the first U-2 flight over the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956.

The U-2 flights over the Soviet Union did not go unnoticed. The Soviet radars were able to identify the spy planes, but the limitations of Russian jet fighter technology, in combination with the spotty tracking capabilities of their radar at such an elevated altitude, prevented the Soviet Union from shooting down the aircraft. In an official letter of protest to the U.S. government on July 10, 1956, the Russian government declared that the U-2 flights represented “a deliberate action by certain US circles designed to exacerbate relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.” The U-2 flights, Russia contended, were violations of Soviet airspace and sovereignty. And yet, there was little they could do except protest. The U-2s were unreachable.

Faster and larger reconnaissance aircraft have been developed since 1956, but few have served as reliably as the U-2. While the aircraft has undergone a number of redesigns, it remains on the front lines of aerial reconnaissance, outlasting other Cold War aircraft. In 2011, U-2 aircraft monitored the situation in Libya and surveyed the damage from the devastating earthquake in Japan.

In 2006, the Department of Defense announced that the fleet of U-2s would be retired to make way for unmanned Global Hawks. Though even as late as February of this year, the military has resisted replacing the U-2 with unmanned aircraft. “The U-2 gives in some cases a better capability and in some cases just a slightly less capable platform,” said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey at a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in 2012.

A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk surveillance drone. The Global Hawk is replacing the U-2 for high altitude covert surveillance missions. Photo: David Gossett/Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical
A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk surveillance drone. The Global Hawk is replacing the U-2 for high altitude covert surveillance missions. Photo: David Gossett/Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical

The Department of Defense’s recent decision to purchase three more Global Hawks from Northrop Grumman suggests the beginning of the end of U-2 operations. Just as the U-2 changed the game in 1956, drones herald the dawn of a new era in technological advancement in the field of aerial reconnaissance. Then, as now, the deployment of reconnaissance aircraft is considered in many ways to be a provocation. Flying and spying at the inky edges of the atmosphere, these spy planes stir brooding resentment among those who lack the technology to find them, let alone reach them.

The spike in tension that has resulted from the new U.S.-Japan agreement illustrates the paradox of aerial reconnaissance. These aircraft have two roles: to identify targets for destruction in the event of a war, and to collect intelligence that reduces the risk of engaging in war. Such knowledge minimizes the chaotic role that surprise and chance can play when the relations between countries deteriorates. With this in mind, in 1955, President Eisenhower proposed to Khrushchev that the U.S.S.R. open its skies to U.S. reconnaissance flights. Unsurprisingly, Khrushchev rejected the “Open Skies” initiative; in response to his refusal, the U.S. developed the U-2. After almost sixty years of dedicated service, that aircraft will soon be retired. But the same kind of geopolitical maneuvering that brought about it’s creation remains a fixture of international relations. The only difference is that its drones, rather than manned aircraft, that prowl the empty skies.

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