The Air Force is forging ahead with its plan to retire the storied U-2 Dragon Lady spy aircraft in fiscal 2026, as part of a yearslong effort to reshape how the service surveils American adversaries from above.
Air Force leaders have considered retiring the U-2 fleet for nearly two decades, asking Congress in some years to ditch the Cold War-era workhorse or, in others, to retire the RQ-4 Global Hawk drones that were meant to replace it. Now both are on the chopping block.
If Congress approves the divestment and lets the Air Force retire its remaining RQ-4s one year later, the service would finish out the decade without the high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that peer across borders and track enemy movements.
Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., noted the service’s plan for the U-2 on Tuesday in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2024 budget request. The pending retirement was briefly mentioned in military budget documents released earlier this spring.
The service’s previous spending requests have foreshadowed the end of the U-2 fleet in the mid-2020s, including in its asks for fiscal 2021 and 2022. Last year’s request did not specify when the airframe would retire but zeroed out modernization funds after 2025.
The newest slate of budget documents acknowledges that the Air Force plans to keep the U-2 fleet viable through the end of September 2025, before shifting that money to higher priorities.
The Air Force said it expects Congress to remove legislative language that has blocked the jet’s retirement in the past, allowing the service to “move forward with U-2 divestment in FY 2026.”
The annual defense policy acts approved by Congress have sought to ensure that the Air Force has a suitable replacement for the U-2 and RQ-4 before yanking the assets that commanders around the world rely on for intelligence.
But once it cuts those fleets, the Air Force would instead turn to space-based sensors to collect a similar set of high-altitude images, its budget request said.
The Air Force’s 27 U-2s are housed at Beale Air Force Base, California, and rotate through military installations around the world. The aircraft are famous for the 105-foot wingspan that allows them to glide at the edge of space, the pilots clad in astronaut-like pressurized suits, the bulbous nose radars and the chase cars that follow the wobbly planes down the runway to ensure they land safely.
Known for capturing the images that proved the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile sites in Cuba in 1962, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U-2 gained new fame for tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon’s journey across the United States earlier this year.
Until recently, the jets relied on wet-film cameras with enormous film canisters that had to be shipped to Beale and developed by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing there. That practice ended last summer in a pivot to the digital era.
Dragon Ladies have lately taken on a new role as testbeds for a host of more advanced reconnaissance and communication technologies, and have helped vet new artificial intelligence tools in the Air Force’s quest for more capable drones.
The U-2 is also being used as a surrogate platform in the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program, which looks to dramatically improve data-sharing capabilities among military assets.
It’s unclear how the Air Force would repurpose U-2 pilots and others in that enterprise if the airframes are allowed to retire.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.