Make your own free website on

U2 Overflight

On 2nd August 1998, a U-2 spy aircraft of the U.S. Air Force flew 200 km into western India to spy on our sensitive nuclear test sites. The intruder was allowed to get away scot-free.

There are no weekends in the southwestern air command, recently shifted to Ahmedabad. So it was on the Saturday night of August 1. The radars at all the bases in Gujarat and Rajasthan were scanning the horizons, spotting and tracking all the expected transcontinental airliners, IAF sorties and the like. At 2.33 a.m., Sunday, the 2nd of August, some of the radars spotted an unidentified object, flying in from Pakistani airspace over the rather bright-moonlit desert. As the missile batteries locked on to the unexpected and unfamiliar aircraft, flying at about 70,000 feet, a scramble was ordered. Four interceptors took off from one of the bases in no time roaring towards the intruder. By then the intruder, flying at around 600-odd kilometres per hour(not very fast by combat aircraft standards) had penetrated some 200 kilometres into Indian airspace. Hectic consultations took place down the operational chain of command. The intruder was soon identified 'hostile' on IFF(identification friend or foe) and established as a U-2, the mysterious American spy plane of Garry Powers notoriety. Permission to shoot was sought. By then the intruder was already on the egress(return) mode.

U2 recce aircraft

According to those in the know, Pakistan does not have any reconnaissance plane that can fly at 70,000 feet(beyond the reach of most missiles). According to them there are only two spy planes with this altitude capability, the SR-71 and U-2, both belonging to the United States Air Force(USAF). However, from the comparatively slow speed and the silhouette shape, they have concluded it was a U-2. "There is no need for an SR-71, capable of mach-3 speeds, to fly that slow. Either way, only USAF has both these aircraft," said an officer. But what did the pilot want? "From the angle-shot he took into the desert country, we can conclude he was spying on either our air-defence installations in the sector or on Pokharan," said the officer. There is still no clue on why permission to shoot was not given. "We could have shot him in the egress mode," said the officer. "But maybe we wanted to avoid a diplomatic issue. The explanation given down the line was that he would come back another day or night and we can force-land him, scrambled in front and rear."

Officers believe that this was first such attempt by a USAF U-2 in the recent past. "From the way he flew, we can say he was not sure of the response. Clearly he did not want to spend much time in our airspace. Rather than flying in straight, he took a huge curve, an arc, into our airspace."Interestingly, on the same day Pakistan alleged that four Indian fighters had intruded into Pakistani airspace between 9.15 a.m. and 11.15 a.m. on Saturday. India denied the allegation. U-2s are described as very high-altitude, all-weather strategic reconnaissance aircraft which can be used for day and night battlefield reconnaissance. With a maximum cruising speed of 692 km per hour, an operational ceiling of 70,000 feet, and a range of 4800 kilometres, this vintage plane of the 1950s is still one of the world's most secretive spy planes. USAF's SR-71 and the Russian-built MiG-25s(India has some half a dozen of them) may be the world's fastest spy planes(mach 3 and mach 2.83 respectively), but U-2 still remains the American spymasters' workhorse.

The plane shot into notoriety when the Soviets shot it down in May 1960 and captured pilot Garry Powers. Till then the Americans had been denying the intrusion by U-2s into Soviet airspace, believing that no Soviet missile could reach 70,000 feet. The Russians had to take the denial till their newly developed SA-2 shot down Powers. There are only theories on where the intruder into India came from. Pakistan is not known to have allowed US spy planes to operate from its bases. U-2s are operated by the 9th reconnaissance wing of USAF from Beale air force base in California. There are detachments at Istres flight test centre in France(to cover Bosnia), at the RAF Akrotiri base in Cyprus(for UN monitoring of the 1973 Arab-Israeli accord), at Osan in South Korea and at Taif air base in Saudi Arabia(to monitor Iraq). The intruder into India is believed to have come from Taif where the 4402nd reconnaissance squadron is based.

Sources in the Indian Air Force believe that the United States has been smarting under the flak its espionage agencies faced for having been unable to predict(and of course prevent) the Pokharan nuclear tests in May. Since then, aerial and space espionage activity over India is believed to have been stepped up. In fact, former defence secretary Donald Rumsfield, who heads the bipartisan commission working on threats posed to US by ballistic missiles, told the senate recently: "We have had serious espionage problems in this country(India), and there have been traitors in our country who have given away information about the timing and capabilities of our satellite surveillance. And that has been very damaging." During all the turmoil in the American establishment over the failure to detect Indian activity at Pokharan, the US security agencies were talking only how the spy satellites failed. Interestingly, satellite Orion was launched from Cape Canaveral on May 8, three days before the first round of nuclear tests. Its footprint or coverage is over China, India, Pakistan, west Asia, and the two Koreas.

Intelligence experts in the US have been alleging in the wake of Pokharan tests that Indians had known about the timings that US space eyes would be looking at India so that they could time their activities when the satellite cameras were not looking. There is thus a predictability about spy satellites, unlike reconnaissance planes which can be sent any time and in any weather. With all its spy eyes in space, the US has not let its spy planes idle even after the cold war. In fact, the SR-71s which were retired in January 1990 because of prohibitive operating cost have since been brought back into service and two of them were operating by March 1996. Similarly, the sortie rate of U-2s in the late 1990s is almost three times the rate in the cold war days. As a USAF U-2 commander once admitted, "any time of day, a U-2 is collecting something somewhere in the world." There are 32 U-2s with the USAF which are expected to serve till 2020.

The recently installed ground device called mobile stretch(MOBSTR) takes higher bandwidth from the U-2's terrestrial data link and compresses and formats it for easier satellite transmission. Another recently installed device is the advanced synthetic aperture radar system(ASARS-2) which has an enhanced moving target indicator and a new antenna that is electronically scanned in azimuth. The aircraft can transmit real-time electro-optical and infra-red images with the senior year electro-optical reconnaissance system(SYERS), and an electro-optical backplane has been fitted to the film camera. If a radar is detected during a flight, SYERS would quickly image it.

Air force sources believe that India has been put on the US's close-watch list. Though refusing to confirm the U-2 incident of August 2, a top IAF officer said, "It is only natural that they step up surveillance on India, from space, air, sea or even from ground. They have been peeved by Pokharan-II. They would now want to know about every little of our(military) movements."

(Adapted from an article by R. Prasannan in "The Week" 16/8/1998)