World attention is once again focused on the seldom-seen U-2 spy plane. One of the high-altitude surveillance aircraft belonging to the United States military crashed in the Middle East yesterday, killing its pilot. The United States says the incident occurred as the plane was returning to base after an observation mission over Afghanistan. The U-2 -- which flies at the edge of space -- was made famous in 1960, when one was shot down by the Soviet Union.
Prague, 23 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's crash recalls one of the most famous incidents of the Cold War -- when a missile brought down a U-2 being flown over Soviet territory by American pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960.
Powers spent almost two years in a Soviet jail, until he was exchanged in Berlin for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The swap itself became a famous moment in the Cold War, as Powers and Abel walked across a river bridge from opposite ends, to the western and eastern zones, respectively.
Powers recalled the incident to journalists after his release.
"I am sure that there was no direct [missile] hit. There was no impact of any kind," Powers says.
Yesterday's crash of a U-2 in the United Arab Emirates proves that -- almost 50 years later -- the high-flying plane with the eagle's eye is still used as a key tool in information gathering. That's despite the multitude of space satellites and electronic eavesdropping devices developed in the last half-century.
As London-based military aviation expert Andrew Brooks notes, the U-2 has much greater flexibility in intelligence gathering. Satellites operate in fixed orbits and cannot linger to make extra observations. And, of course, the spy plane has been radically updated over the years in terms of the equipment it carries.
"This is [virtually] a different airplane. It is still called a U-2, but in many ways it is nothing like it. The systems are completely altered," Brooks says.
The Cold War is long over. And the U-2, once a CIA tool shrouded in secrecy, is now "out of the closet," Brooks says.
"[The U-2] is much more out in the open. It is basically a surveillance vehicle of the international community. It can just as easily be monitoring flood relief or whatever, [whereas] in the [Cold War] days, it was looking for Soviet missile silos ready to fire," Brooks says.
For this reason, he says, foreign countries today are more willing to have U-2s based on their territories than in previous times.
The skinny aircraft has long, thin wings than span 30 meters, which help it stay aloft at altitudes that can exceed 25 kilometers. Made for the rarefied air on the edge of space, the U-2 can prove awkward at lower altitudes, and notoriously difficult to land.
Indeed, it was while landing at a base in the United Arab Emirates that the U-2 crashed yesterday, killing its lone pilot. The U.S. Central Command says the plane was returning from a mission over Afghanistan. The exact cause of the crash has not been disclosed.
Air Force spokesman David Small says U-2 planes are flying daily over Afghanistan and Iraq, in support of American and allied ground forces.
Andrew Brooks of the International Institute of Strategic Studies says the U-2 is virtually immune from attack while performing this role.
"The Soviet Union could have hit it, or today's Russia or China, but we are talking now about looking at mujahedin, at terrorists, at Taliban, at insurgents. These sort of people could not produce the capability to knock it down," Brooks says.
Although the Air Force spokesman did not mention Iran, it's considered certain that the United States is employing the U-2's surveillance capabilities there, as well. Washington suspects Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iranian officials have said they will try to shoot down any unauthorized aircraft flying in Iranian airspace. But Brooks says Iran is a case where satellite observation would also be effective, because fixed ground installations such as nuclear plants can be observed regularly by satellites.
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