Tuesday, March 23, 2010

U-2 Spy Plane Evades the Day of Retirement

The U-2 spy plane, the high-flying aircraft that was often at the heart of cold war suspense, is enjoying an encore.

Four years ago, the Pentagon was ready to start retiring the plane, which took its first test flight in 1955. But Congress blocked that, saying the plane was still useful.

And so it is. Because of updates in the use of its powerful sensors, it has become the most sought-after spy craft in a very different war in Afghanistan.

As it shifts from hunting for nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs, it is outshining even the unmanned drones in gathering a rich array of intelligence used to fight the Taliban.

All this is a remarkable change from the U-2's early days as a player in United States-Soviet espionage. Built to find Soviet missiles, it became famous when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in one while streaking across the Soviet Union in 1960, and again when another U-2 took the photographs that set off the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Newer versions of the plane have gathered intelligence in every war since then and still monitor countries like North Korea.

Now the U-2 and its pilots, once isolated in their spacesuits at 70,000 feet, are in direct radio contact with the troops in Afghanistan. And instead of following a rote path, they are now shifted frequently in midflight to scout roads for convoys and aid soldiers in firefights.

In some ways, the U-2, which flew its first mission in 1956, is like an updated version of an Etch A Sketch in an era of high-tech computer games.

"It's like after all the years it's flown, the U-2 is in its prime again," said Lt. Col. Jason M. Brown, who commands an intelligence squadron that plans the missions and analyzes much of the data. "It can do things that nothing else can do."

One of those things, improbably enough, is that even from 13 miles up its sensors can detect small disturbances in the dirt, providing a new way to find makeshift mines that kill many soldiers.

In the weeks leading up to the recent offensive in Marja, military officials said, several of the 32 remaining U-2s found nearly 150 possible mines in roads and helicopter landing areas, enabling the Marines to blow them up before approaching the town.

Marine officers say they relied on photographs from the U-2's old film cameras, which take panoramic images at such a high resolution they can see insurgent footpaths, while the U-2's newer digital cameras beamed back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines thought they could be vulnerable.

In addition, the U-2's altitude, once a defense against antiaircraft missiles, enables it to scoop up signals from insurgent phone conversations that mountains would otherwise block.

As a result, Colonel Brown said, the U-2 is often able to collect information that suggests where to send the Predator and Reaper drones, which take video and also fire missiles. He said the most reliable intelligence comes when the U-2s and the drones are all concentrated over the same area, as is increasingly the case.

The U-2, a black jet with long, narrow wings to help it slip through the thin air, cuts an impressive figure as it rises rapidly into the sky. It flies at twice the height of a commercial jet, affording pilots views of such things as the earth's curvature.

But the plane, nicknamed the Dragon Lady, is difficult to fly, and missions are grueling and dangerous. The U-2s used in Afghanistan and Iraq commute each day from a base near the Persian Gulf, and the trip can last nine to 12 hours. Pilots eat meals squeezed through tubes and wear spacesuits because their blood would literally boil if they had to eject unprotected at such a high altitude.

As the number of flights increases, some of the plane's 60 pilots have suffered from the same disorienting illness, known as the bends, that afflicts deep-sea divers who ascend too quickly.

Relaxing recently in their clubhouse at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif., the U-2's home base, several pilots said the most common problems are sharp joint pain or a temporary fogginess.

But in 2006, a U-2 pilot almost crashed after drifting in and out of consciousness during a flight over Afghanistan. The pilot, Kevin Henry, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said in an interview that he felt as if he were drunk, and he suffered some brain damage. At one point, he said, he came within five feet of smashing into the ground before miraculously finding a runway.

As a safety measure, U-2 pilots start breathing pure oxygen an hour before takeoff to reduce the nitrogen in their bodies and cut the risk of decompression sickness. Mr. Henry, who now instructs pilots on safety, thinks problems with his helmet seal kept him from breathing enough pure oxygen before his flight.

Lt. Col. Kelly N. West, the chief of aerospace medicine at Beale, said one other pilot had also been disqualified from flying the U-2. Since 2002, six pilots have transferred out on their own after suffering decompression illnesses.

Still, most of the pilots remain undeterred, and the Air Force is taking more precautions. Holding an oxygen mask to his nose, one pilot, Maj. Eric M. Shontz, hopped on an elliptical machine for 10 minutes before a practice flight at Beale to help dispel the nitrogen faster. Several assistants then made sure he stayed connected to an oxygen machine as they sealed his spacesuit and drove him to the plane.

Major Shontz and other U-2 pilots say the planes gradually became more integrated in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But since the flights over Afghanistan began to surge in early 2009, the U-2s have become a much more fluid part of the daily battle plan.

Major Shontz said he was on the radio late last year with an officer as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. "You could hear his voice talking faster and faster, and he's telling me that he needs air support," Major Shontz recalled. He said that a minute after he relayed the message, an A-10 gunship was sent to help.

Brig. Gen. H.D. Polumbo Jr., a top policy official with the Air Force, said recent decisions to give intelligence analysts more flexibility in figuring out how to use the U-2 each day had added to its revival.

Over beers at the clubhouse, decorated with scrolls honoring the heroes of their small fraternity, other U-2 pilots say they know their aircraft's reprieve will last only so long.

And the U-2's replacement sits right across the base — the Global Hawk, a remote-controlled drone that flies almost as high as the U-2 and typically stays aloft for 24 hours or more. The first few Global Hawks have been taking intelligence photos in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But a larger model that could also intercept communications has been delayed, and the Air Force is studying how to add sensors that can detect roadside bombs to other planes. So officials say it will most likely be 2013 at the earliest before the U-2 is phased into retirement.

"We've needed to be nimble to stay relevant," said Doug P. McMahon, a major who has flown the U-2 for three years. "But eventually it's bound to end."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Japan confirms Cold War-era 'secret' pacts with US

TOKYO – Japan confirmed for the first time Tuesday the existence of once-secret Cold War-era pacts with the U.S. that tacitly allowed nuclear-armed warships to enter Japanese ports in violation of Tokyo's postwar principles.

While declassified U.S. documents have already confirmed such 1960s agreements, Tuesday's revelation broke with decades of official denials.

The investigation by a government-mandated panel is part of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's campaign to rein in the power of bureaucrats and make his government, which was elected to power last year, more open than that of the long-ruling conservatives, who repeatedly denied the existence of such pacts.

"It's regrettable that such facts were not disclosed to the public for such a long time, even after the end of the Cold War era," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told a news conference, adding that the investigation was meant to restore public trust in Japan's diplomacy.

The panel examined documents surrounding four pacts, including Tokyo's tacit permission that U.S. nuclear-armed warships could make calls at Japanese ports — a violation of Japan's so-called three non-nuclear principles not to make, own or allow the entry of atomic weapons.

There is strong aversion to nuclear weapons in Japan, the only country to suffer atomic bombings — in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Speculation about the existence of such secret agreements have been swirling in Japan for years so the panel's findings most likely will simply confirm public suspicions rather than shock or anger people. Some are also aware of U.S. documents about these matters.

Analysts welcomed the move as a positive step toward more transparency in the Japanese government but said it probably won't revive the sagging popularity of Hatoyama's government or affect U.S.-Japan ties, which have grown strained recently because of a dispute about relocating a key Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.

"It's a good thing for Japanese democracy, given that the previous governments have been telling blunt lies to the public," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"But I don't think it's going to have a short-term impact on the government's popularity," he said. "A lot of people look at this as something that belongs to history."

Under a security alliance with the U.S., some 47,000 American troops are stationed in Japan, and the U.S. protects the country under its nuclear umbrella.

Okada said it was possible that before 1991, when the U.S. stopped carrying battle-ready nuclear weapons, American warships might have had nuclear weapons as they entered Japanese waters or entered Japanese ports.

Reacting to the six-member panel's findings, summarized in a 108-page report, Hatoyama said there would be no changes to Japan's non-nuclear policy.

The panel, led by University of Tokyo professor Shinichi Kitaoka, said that while documents showed that Washington and Tokyo appeared to have differing interpretations about allowing nuclear-armed ships into Japanese waters, it was likely that Tokyo and Washington shared an unspoken understanding permitting them to make port calls in Japan without consent.

The experts also acknowledged that Tokyo and Washington had secret agreements allowing the U.S. to use military bases in Japan without prior consent in case of emergency on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War.

The panel said it could not find specific evidence showing a secret pact allowing the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into Okinawa after the 1972 reversion of the island to Japan. But it acknowledged that there was a vague secret agreement over Japan's cost burdens for Okinawa's 1972 reversion to Japan.


Associated Press writer Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS the spelling of professor's name to Kitaoka, instead of Kataoka.)