USAF Will Retire the U-2 in 2026. Till Then, Count on ‘Distinctive, Progressive’ Makes use of

DAYTON, Ohio—The Air Power plans to retire its U-2 Dragon Girl fleet in fiscal 2026—however till then, officers say they’re laborious at work to maintain the enduring high-altitude surveillance planes flying and testing out expertise that could be used on future plane. 

The plan to divest the U-2 was first reported by Aviation Week and Air Power Occasions, citing a line tucked into Air Power funds paperwork that “expectations are for protecting NDAA language to be waived … permitting the USAF to maneuver ahead with U-2 divestment in FY 2026.” 

Col. William Collins, senior materiel chief for high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, confirmed the plan to reporters on the Life Cycle Business Days convention on Aug. 1—the primary official Air Power touch upon the way forward for the U-2 because the plan emerged. 

“Our focus proper now could be working with [Air Combat Command] to keep up full viability of the airplane by the service life, sustaining as a lot commerce area for senior leaders,” Collins instructed Air & House Forces Journal. “We’re working towards the Air Power’s place to the most effective of our means. However what we’re doing predominantly is specializing in how we be certain that we don’t create a state of affairs wherein we’re not capable of meet mission want due to issues like obsolescence.” 

Whereas the orginial U-2 first flew in 1955, the present plane date again to the Eighties, with the ultimate one delivered in 1989. That was adopted by an improve within the early Nineties. However the fleet’s common age is now practically 40 years previous, and the Air Power faces diminishing manufacturing sources for key components, Collins stated. 

Nonetheless, the U-2 stays distinctive within the Air Power stock because the service’s solely manned high-altitude ISR platform. An icon of the Chilly Battle period, the Dragon Girl returned to headlines earlier this 12 months when one flew over the Chinese language surveillance balloon transiting the continental U.S. The Pentagon subsequently launched a picture from the U-2 cockpit exhibiting the balloon.

With the power to fly at altitudes in extra of 70,000 toes, demand from combatant commanders continues, Collins stated, so the Air Power desires to maintain the fleet in flying form into 2026. USAF requested for $16.8 million in analysis and growth, $54.7 million in procurement, and $17 million in operations and upkeep to the U-2 in fiscal 2024.  

The plane’s makes use of additionally aren’t restricted solely to ISR, stated Col. Joshua Williams, program govt officer for ISR and particular operations forces. 

“We’re utilizing U-2 in distinctive and progressive methods and as a surrogate platform, reducing danger for our fifth-gen fighters,” stated Williams. “All we’re doing is reducing danger and growing the technical mature for stuff we’ll use on the F-35, F-22. 

In accordance with funds paperwork, that “stuff” contains sensors and capabilities associated to the Air Power’s Superior Battle Administration System and the Pentagon’s broader Joint All-Area Command and Management effort.

“What we’re targeted on is a code-compliant processor functionality that gives open mission methods, in order that we will bear out that means to be leveraged on fifth-gen, sixth-gen platforms,” Collins stated. “We’re additionally demoing some [signals intelligence] functionality that can be doubtlessly used on future platforms.” 

Along with shopping for down danger and liberating up fighters just like the F-35 and F-22, utilizing the U-2 as a surrogate has one other profit.

“We’re specializing in exhibiting that as we develop future functionality, not solely are we doing the survivability, but additionally the power to plug and play sensors, not being platform-specific, however platform agnostic,” Collins stated. 

Significantly for ABMS, Air Power leaders have burdened the significance of sensors with the ability to match right into a broader structure. 

However whereas the U-2 might profit sixth-generation platforms and ABMS by testing out future tech, the Air Power’s plans for its fundamental mission of high-altitude ISR are altering basically, as effectively. The service’s different high-altitude ISR platform, the RQ-4 International Hawk drone, is slated to be retired in 2027, a 12 months after the sundown of the U-2 fleet.

“There’s going to be much more area concerned,” Williams stated. “Particularly within the contested environments the U-2 and these platforms fly in, it’s a unique drawback and a unique reply.”