With the presentation of the Obama administration's fiscal 2015 budget request last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his decision in a battle that had been brewing for some time: U-2 (below) versus Global Hawk. With money as tight as it is, everyone knew it was becoming too expensive to have both options for high-altitude intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions.

It would be easy to portray this as a contest between modernity and nostalgia, pitting a cutting-edge unmanned system against a piloted Cold War relic—Hal the computer versus an aging jet jockey with a silk scarf. Indeed, when Hagel announced his decision, he said he is opting to phase out the “50-year-old U-2 in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk” beginning in 2016 (see page 30). But that comparison is not just an oversimplification, it is the wrong way to approach the question.

Hagel was more forthright when he acknowledged this was “a close call.” It surely is. The operating costs of the two fleets, for example, have been about the same.

And the U-2 does indeed have a storied place in U.S. history. Developed at the legendary Skunk Works under Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the U-2 began collecting intelligence in 1956 on Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China and countless other nations of interest. Its role in gathering imagery of Soviet missiles in Cuba was pivotal in the crisis of 1962.

If the U-2 of today were that same airplane, with just a black-and-white camera, Hagel's decision would make sense. But that is not the U-2 of today. The last U-2, the U-2S, rolled off Lockheed Martin's production line in the 1980s. More importantly, the key sensors—electro-optical/infrared camera, radar and signals intelligence antennas—have been upgraded in the past decade.

What is more, the U-2 has a sophisticated defensive system to protect against attack from advanced S-300 and S-400 Russian-built air-defense systems. Global Hawk has no defensive system. And while that unmanned aerial system (UAS) can fly a full day longer without landing, the U-2 can fly higher (70,000 ft.-plus compared to 55,000-60,000 ft.). That allows U-2 sensors more slant range. The U-2 can carry more payload than the Global Hawk (about 5,000 versus 3,000 lb.) and has more electrical power. Being a UAS, the Global Hawk is harder to deploy to a foreign location and operations are harder to get up and running. The UAS does not have an anti-icing system. Thus, reliability rates from the Pacific are low because Global Hawk cannot get through weather as easily.

None of this is to say the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk is not valuable. The program has its roots in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to prove that a UAS could be developed and operated inexpensively. Global Hawk was not designed to perform the U-2 mission. Rather, it was redesigned to do it once the Air Force went with the larger wing design.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Global Hawk was pressed into service to augment the U-2 with data collection. Momentum took over from there. The young UAS proved it could collect images and provide radar data of ground and surface targets. The Navy eventually deployed the aircraft to demonstrate its utility for monitoring shipping activities around the Persian Gulf.

Global Hawk has performed admirably for nearly 13 years, but somewhere along the line, the Pentagon leadership decided that the UAS could probably take over the U-2's role without first showing how. There is no better evidence of that issue than the fact that the top commanders (including those at the Strategic, Pacific, Central and European commands) still had the U-2 on their wish lists when Hagel made his decision. Finally, this week, the Pentagon said it would cost about $1.9 billion to upgrade the UAS to “parity” with the U-2, which is almost the full amount the Pentagon says it will save in winding down the U-2.

On balance, we believe the secretary made the wrong call. The U-2 still has the edge in capabilities. Our view is not colored by simplistic views of “old” versus “new” and it has nothing to do with manned versus unmanned. Far from it.

We are huge believers in the future of unmanned systems. The RQ-180 that this magazine revealed last December may eventually take over the U-2 role. But the history of defense programs is littered with examples of systems that have been pressed into service before they are ready. If anything, we fear the erroneous conclusions some might draw about UAS in general, should the program to stand up Global Hawk as a U-2 replacement stumble. Let's keep the U-2 for now.