The Air Force plans on retiring the vaunted U-2 spy plane starting in 2025

Military Tech
An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)

After nearly 70 years of service, the U.S. Air Force plans to begin divesting its fleet of U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes starting in fiscal year 2025, budget documents show.

According to the service's fiscal year 2021 budget request of $120.2 million for U-2 procurement, the service "will maintain operational capability up to and through FY25" for the high-altitude plane before divesting in the aircraft beginning that year.

"These investments will address reliability, maintainability, supportability, diminishing manufacturing sources/material shortages (DMS/MS), flight test, safety issues, and integration of capability development activities in support of the broader [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] portfolio," the budget request says. "This continued investment in the platform ends in FY25, where the U-2 will be divested."

Air Force Magazine notes that, taken along with the Air Force's push to retire older versions of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the sudden retirement of the U-2 represents a "potentially sweeping drawdown" of the service's high-altitude ISR aircraft and related capabilities.

First adopted by the Air Force in 1956, the U-2 quickly gained a reputation as the world's most sophisticated spy plane, where pilots don special, astronaut-stye suits to operate at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet for flights of between 8 to 12 hours at a time.

Until that divestiture begins, the Air Force plans to keep the U-2 flying high: As the budget documents note, the service will continue to upgrade the aircraft's critical subsystems to enable "improved collection against emerging threats and capabilities."

"RDT&E efforts will address sustainment, modification, and modernization of sensors and associated mission equipment, and focus on integrating/expanding platform capabilities within the larger ISR portfolio," the budget documents state. "These efforts include (but are not limited to) ASARS 2B/C, avionics and navigation tech refresh, mission planning software and infrastructure upgrades, modernization of aircraft data links, next generation SIGINT, and developing a quick reaction capability."

The Air Force currently expects to maintain a fleet of 31 U-2 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, according to budget documents, including four trainer aircraft.

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