Sorties across the stratosphere

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jeff Andrejcik
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing
The enemy should fear what it can’t see. At high altitudes toward the edge of space, the U-2S is invisible to the naked eye, transmitting critical intelligence to the warfighters below.

The single-seat, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft has been part of the Air Force’s arsenal for nearly 60 years ensuring decision-makers receive pertinent information, which feeds into deciding courses of action on the battlefield.

“It was originally developed by the Air Force, Central Intelligence Agency and Lockheed at Area 51,” said Maj. Brian, an expeditionary reconnaissance squadron U-2 pilot. “The airplane went through many different evolutions and expansions between 1955 and the 1960’s. Now, we’re able to fly above every other airplane in the world; because we can fly that high we can look farther into enemy or denied territory better than anyone else.”

Ground and air operations frequently depend on the U-2’s intelligence to ensure the most efficient and effective tactics are used during missions.

The U-2 and its pilot, suited in what looks like astronaut gear, fly at altitudes routinely above 70,000 feet for extended amounts of time gathering information that keep warfighters several steps ahead of the enemy.

“Most airstrikes are using, in some capacity, intelligence gained by the U-2,” Brian said. “We also provide warnings to identify threats to some of our strike aircraft. We contribute to mission precision, efficiency and of course information dominance; we can take pictures and listen to radios of the enemy and they have a far limited ability to do that of us.”

While the pilot is responsible for flying and gathering information, several support teams behind the scenes are essential to the U-2’s success.

One of those teams is vital to keeping the mission alive, literally.

The fate of U-2 pilots rests in the hands of the physiological support detachment team. Airmen are responsible for preparing the specialized equipment as well as suiting up the aviator prior to takeoff.

“What our team provides for pilots is safety, mobility and comfort,” said Airman 1st Class Christian, an expeditionary reconnaissance squadron physiology support technician. “The equipment we provide gives our pilots peace of mind during the mission, and it’s not a false peace of mind. If something serious were to actually happen, the equipment is there to support them; it stands between life and death.”

For 60 years the U-2 has bridged the gap for warfighters, painting a clearer picture of the battlefield ahead.

The U-2’s tasks haven’t changed with the current campaign, Operation Inherent Resolve. The operation is a multinational effort with a shared objective to degrade and ultimately eliminate the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

“Our customers include all the services, many different governmental agencies and coalition forces,” Brian said. “The intel we provide is varied and expansive; it can be anything from improvised explosive device placement, IED manufacturing facilities, specific houses or airfields.”

The demand for accurate intelligence supplied by the U-2 and other ISR platforms is an essential component in aiding efforts to end ISIL’s movement. The contributions from the ISR community help keep the enemy in a vulnerable state.

The team of U-2 Airmen brings a unique capability to Air Force and coalition partner operations. Lurking at the border of space, the U-2 continues to conduct missions giving the Air Force even more leverage in the fight against ISIL.

(Editor’s note: Due to safety and security reasons, last names and unit designators were removed.)