Posted on: 15 January 1997
Last updated on: 15 January 1997

SR-71 VS. U-2:

This topic is always controversial, and should get the juices flowing! The first argument that comes to mind is the cost to operate and maintain these aircraft. This was the supposed logic behind the de-activation of the SR-71. If you park both Blackbirds side by side, you would likely choose the U-2 as the most cost efficient of the two. If you consider merely the aircraft and the fuel it requires for a mission, you're absolutely correct. The SR-71 uses at least ten times more than the U-2 for an average sortie. The SR-71 is also much more maintenance intensive to keep flying. Ok, now let's add the cost of KC-135 tanker aircraft that deliver the fuel in-flight to the SR-71, and it's support personnel. Now we see the SR-71 is about fifteen times more expensive to operate. Now, lets consider the rest of the story.

The SR-71 was primarily operated at three locations worldwide, while the U-2 has always maintained a few more. More program personnel, equipment, and supplies were required to maintain these locations. In the late 1980s, there were twice as many U-2s in service, with over twice the number of aircrew members flying. More funds were also being utilized for U-2 sensor upgrades. Lets say for the sake of argument, that after all this, the SR-71 is still five times more expensive to operate.

Now, lets look at reconnaissance commitment. The SR-71 maintained world-wide coverage from it's three locations. The U-2 had limited coverage, and often needed to deploy closer to hot spots, which created airlift expenses. Due to this movement, it could take days to get into position for coverage of a particular area. Due to the SR-71's speed and range, it could be over any hot spot in the world within five or six hours. Again, for the sake of argument, letís now say the SR-71 is still four times more expensive to operate.

The capabilities of a reconnaissance aircraft are measured by it's product. In the late 1980s, both the U-2 and SR-71 supported similar systems with very good quality products. There was, however, one significant difference. Due to the speed and range of the SR-71, it could cover over ten times as much surface area as the U-2. That equates to at least ten U-2 sorties to cover the same area as one SR-71 flight. Iíd venture to say that now the expense for operations is now about equal.

Lets look at Operation Desert Storm / Shield. The U-2, as well as many other AF aircraft had to deploy to the region to facilitate adequate coverage. Even with the U-2 in place, the SR-71 was requested. Although there was not enough time to re-activate the SR-71 then, I find this request very enlightening. This was by no means a major war, nor great force to contend with. And still, prior to US air superiority in the region, the U-2 was unable to provide reconnaissance of key hot spots. Why? As proven many years before, the U-2 is vulnerable to missile fire. Without "de-activating" these sites, no over-flights of particular areas could be attempted. Even after air superiority was achieved, more defensive measures had to be utilized. In fact, it was speculated that if the SR-71 still existed at the time, it could have launched from England, covered five times the area of the U-2 in Iraq, and landed back at base a few hours before the U-2 could have (remembering that the U-2 was in place in the region). It was also speculated that the SR-71 could have been deployed to areas like Egypt or Turkey. From either of those locations, the SR-71 would not have needed tanker aircraft support. One flight could have obtained five times as much coverage, and landed back at base before the U-2 even got into the area. The same basic scenarios applied to Bosnia as well.

Over-flight for the SR-71 is not a problem. Over the years, many have attempted to shoot her down, and I think the closest they ever came was within about a mile. In fact, we used to fly training sorties against our Navy. We would give them the following facts: Our launch time, route, altitude, and speed. If that wasn't enough, we would fly with transmitting beacons which would alert ground stations and aircraft to our exact location. Then, the Navy F-14 Tomcats would attempt to achieve a missile lock on the SR-71. At our speed and altitude, they have about 2 1/2 seconds to achieve a lock. We did this for several years, and to my knowledge, they never got us. No other aircraft in the world has had greater success in this area than our F-14s!

I didn't speak much to the issue of UAVs and satellites here, and for good reasons. They are just not practical solutions to reconnaissance in a hostile environment. The UAVís just crash or get shot down a lot, and satellites are predictable, and simply too hard to move into position.

You can decide for yourself which was more economical to operate. In 1990, politics canceled the SR-71 program. At that time, it was the most capable of all reconnaissance platforms in existence. One major reason it was canceled was to provide funds for the UAV programs. Congress was promised a replacement within five years. Obviously that never happened, and Congress directed the re-activation of the SR-71. The AF still favors the U-2 and UAVs, and continues to do everything to prevent it's comeback. Over the past six years, the U-2 has had many advancements, and is now the best. While the SR-71 is capable of returning as the world's premier reconnaissance platform, lack of funding is preventing this. All advancements planned for the SR-71 fall short of current U-2 capabilities, and that's the plan that's been directed from the top by the limited funding available. A data-link system that sends "real time" information from the platform to a ground station is where reconnaissance is at! The SR-71 is making an attempt to get there, but due to funds, had to settle for an aged system that really never worked well on the U-2.

I think itís quite obvious which was more important for national defense! It was thought with the fall of the USSR, that the SR-71 would no longer be needed. Iraq and Bosnia proved this to be a falsehood. Who's next? I fear a world crisis is the only way the SR-71 will get another chance to prove itself. Lets hope I wrong!

Introduction     Acronyms & Abbreviations     SR-71 Maintenance     A Typical SR-71 Maintenance Process

SR-71 Deactivation     The U-2 World     War Stories     SR-71 vs U-2     Conclusion     My Biography

© Christopher W. Bennett

Back to the main U-2 page

Back to the main SR-71 page