Many analysts argue the unmanned Global Hawk could do the job more effectively, but Congress has nixed that idea for now. More than US$1.7 billion has been invested in upgrading the U-2.
Iconic, yes. State-of-the-art, no. The venerable B-52, remembered by movie fans for its starring role in the 1964 Cold War comedy Dr Strangelove, remains the backbone of the air force’s strategic bomber force. It dates back to 1954 and was already losing its edge by the end of the Vietnam War, but nearly 100 B-52s remain in service.
The air force developed the B-1 in the 1970s as the B-52’s replacement. Then-US president Jimmy Carter killed it, former US president Ronald Reagan brought it back and none have been delivered since 1988.
Next up was the stealth B-2 Spirit, which first flew in 1989. Because only 21 were built, they ended up costing a prohibitive $2 billion each. The air force is now hoping to upgrade with what it calls the Long Range Strike Bomber, but it is not clear when it will be ready.