The US Air Force (USAF) will retire the iconic U-2 spy plane in 2026. But until then, besides being used for ISR missions, the Dragon Lady will be used to test out technology that may be used on future aircraft.
The retirement of the U-2 was first announced by Aviation Week and Air Force Times that cited Air Force budget documents saying that “expectations are for protective NDAA language to be waived … allowing the USAF to move forward with U-2 divestment in FY 2026.”
Now, as reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, Col. William Collins, senior materiel leader for high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, confirmed the plan to reporters at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference on Aug. 1—the first official Air Force comment on the future of the U-2 since the plan emerged.
“Our focus right now is working with [Air Combat Command] to maintain full viability of the plane through the service life, maintaining as much trade space for senior leaders. We are working toward the Air Force’s position to the best of our ability. But what we’re doing predominantly is focusing on how we ensure that we don’t create a scenario in which we’re not able to meet mission need because of things like obsolescence,” Collins told Air & Space Forces Magazine.
Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955.
The U-2R, first flown in 1967, was 40 percent larger and more capable than the original aircraft. A tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1A, first flew in August 1981 and was structurally identical to the U-2R. The last U-2 and TR-1 aircraft were delivered in October 1989; in 1992 all TR-1s and U-2s were designated as U-2Rs. Since 1994, $1.7 billion has been invested to modernize the U-2 airframe and sensors. These upgrades also included the transition to the GE F118-101 engine which resulted in the re-designation of all Air Force U-2 aircraft to the U-2S.
Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other US decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In more recent times, the U-2 has provided intelligence during operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The Dragon Lady gained the headlines again earlier this year when one flew over the Chinese surveillance balloon transiting the continental US. The Pentagon subsequently released an image from the U-2 cockpit showing the balloon.
When requested, the U-2 also provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of disaster relief from floods, earthquakes, and forest fires as well as search and rescue operations.
But the USAF faces diminishing manufacturing sources for key parts because the fleet’s average age is now nearly 40 years old.
Nevertheless, given its capability to fly at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet the USAF wants to keep the U-2 in flying shape into 2026 because demand from combatant commanders continues.
According to Col. Joshua Williams, program executive officer for ISR and special operations forces, the U-2 is not just used for ISR.
Williams in fact explained that the U-2 is being used in innovative ways and as a surrogate platform, decreasing risk for F-22 and F-35 fifth-gen fighters.
As reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, according to budget documents, that “stuff” includes sensors and capabilities related to the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) and the Pentagon’s broader Joint All-Domain Command and Control effort.
“What we’re focused on is a code-compliant processor capability that provides open mission systems, so that we can bear out that ability to be leveraged on fifth-gen, sixth-gen platforms,” Collins said. “We’re also looking at demoing some [signals intelligence] capability that can also be potentially used on future platforms.”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin
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