After nearly 70 years of service, the U.S. Air Force plans to retire its fleet of U-2 Dragon Lady spyplanes starting in the fiscal year 2025.
The Air Force says it will not divest its fleet of U-2 Dragon Lady planes in fiscal 2025, despite language to the contrary in the service’s 2021 budget request.
Air Force Magazine first reported that the budget submission, unveiled Feb. 10, planned to start retiring the Cold War-era Dragon Ladies in five years. However, the Air Force also projected spending $77 million on developing updates for the fleet from 2021-2024 but zeroed out research and development spending in 2025.
“Currently, the Air Force plans to divest the U-2 in FY ‘25,” the service’s budget documents state. “Until that time, in order to meet [National Defense Authorization Act-] mandated capability and capacity, the Air Force continues to invest and modernize the U-2 program.”
But the service said that mentions of divestment in the budget proposal were incorrect.
“The Air Force FY ‘21 budget position is to fully fund the U-2 through FY ‘25,” service spokeswoman Laura McAndrews said Feb. 11.
U-2 manufacturer Lockheed Martin is looking into the confusion as well.
It’s possible the Air Force did forecast the U-2’s retirement but walked back the plan without changing the official projection.
In fiscal 2013, the Air Force decided to keep the U-2 instead of retiring it, only to reverse the decision in 2015. The 2015 budget called for divestiture in 2016, but by 2016 the Air Force had pushed back U-2 retirement to start in 2019 and finish in 2020. That decision changed in the 2018 budget when USAF pledged to keep the U-2 through 2022. The service reversed course again in the 2019 submission to indefinitely retain the fleet, a decision that held in the 2020 budget.
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 the fiscal year 2021, according to budget documents, including four trainer aircraft.