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.
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 in midflight to scout roads for convoys and aid soldiers in firefights.
“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 analyses much of the data. “It can do things that nothing else can do.”
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.
The U-2’s old film cameras, which take panoramic images at such a high resolution they can see insurgent footpaths, are used by the Marines.
The U-2’s newer digital cameras beam back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines think they could be vulnerable.