Austin Bay

THE MIDDLE EAST -- At a sprawling desert airbase in the Middle East -- one not far from Iran and the geo-strategically critical Strait of Hormuz -- I saw the past and future in aerial reconnaissance cross-paths.

This instructive moment, however, was symbolically inverted. In the Hollywood version, the future takes off and the past lands, rolling off into the sunset. Just the opposite occurred. The past, a black U-2 spy plane, took off and shot skyward with a characteristic steep climb, an altitude grabber. The future, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, landed and glided to a stop.

Don't let the glide fool you. I'm not sure where the remotely piloted Global Hawk had flown that day, but the platform has the range to reach Central Asia or Iraq, and a radar signature small enough to approach and explore dicey airspace in between.

Don't let its looks fool you, either. The Global Hawk's oblong, egg-like head -- reminiscent of another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Predator -- houses a sophisticated computer brain, robotic eyes and first-class digital nerves. Unlike the Predator, the Global Hawk is jet-powered, and it's big.

The U-2 is no beauty, either, though over time my opinion of the Dragonlady's looks has changed for the better. On the ground, its huge, thin wings are awkward, but once aloft the black spy plane has the stubborn elegance of an ocean-hopping seabird.

I wonder if that's the way Kelly Johnson and his Lockheed Skunk Works engineers envisioned the U-2 when they designed it in the 1950s -- a manned albatross with the altitude and range to take pictures of the Soviet Union so we could count the Kremlin's missiles, bombers and tanks.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the U-2 on its silent vigil helped defeat it, as did its snazzy, hypersonic offspring, the SR-71, another example of Skunk Works genius. Information gleaned from these planes and satellites first helped contain the Cold War (for example, we learned there was no bomber gap), then win it.

The downside of the U-2, however, hit the headlines in 1960, when U-2 CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. A spy plane with a man in it runs that risk -- all manned aircraft do.

This is one of the upsides of UAVs like the Global Hawk, Predator and the new, improved attack UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper. When a UAV goes down, we don't lose an American pilot to death, injury or the humiliation and torture of a Hanoi Hilton.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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