U-2 Retirement Reprieve Emerges In Proposed Defense Spending Bill

Members of Congress are moving to prevent the U.S. Air Force from retiring its fleet of iconic U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes. The Pentagon approved a waiver last year that had cleared the way for the service to begin divesting the high-flying Cold War-era jets, which The War Zone was first to report. The Air Force’s current plan is to divest the last of the U-2s in 2026 and supplant them with a mix of still largely undefined space-based and other capabilities, which is widely believed to include a classified stealthy high-altitude drone.

The House Appropriations Committee released a draft of the annual defense spending bill for the upcoming 2025 Fiscal Year earlier today. It includes a provision that, should the bill become law, would explicitly and without exception prevent “funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act” from being “used to divest or prepare to divest any U-2 aircraft.”

As of the start of Fiscal Year 2024, the Air Force had 31 U-2s in its inventory, including a trio of two-seat TU-2S trainers.

One of the Air Force’s two-seat TU-2S trainers. USAF

Until last year, the Air Force had been blocked from retiring any U-2s by provisions in annual defense policy bills, or National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA), enacted in previous fiscal years. However, the earlier legislation had included a path to proceeding with retiring the venerable spy planes if the Pentagon could certify that certain stipulations had been met. Chief among these was the insistence that the resulting capability gap would be filled in a cost-effective manner. You can read more about this here.

“On October 30, 2023, the Secretary of Defense [Lloyd Austin] signed a waiver to divest the U-2 Dragon Lady in accordance with language in the FY 2021 NDAA waiver requirement. In signing the waiver, Secretary of Defense certified combatant commands will continue to be able to accomplish their missions at acceptable levels of risk,” an annual force structure report the Pentagon released in April further explains. “The ability to win future high-end conflicts requires accepting short-term risks by divesting legacy ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconniassance] assets that offer limited capability against peer and near-peer threats. The USAF will fleet-divest the remaining 31 U-2 aircraft starting October 1, 2026.”

A U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane. Lockheed Martin

The increasing vulnerability of the aging U-2 to air defenses operated by even lower-tier potential adversaries, let alone near-peer competitions like China and Russia, has long been an argument in favor of retiring the jets. China, in particular, continues to expand its anti-access and area denial bubbles and push them further and further from the mainland.

At the same time, the Dragon Lady continues to be a uniquely high-flying ISR platform capable of carrying a wide array of different imaging, signals intelligence, and other sensors simultaneously. U-2s, which regularly operate from a variety of forward locations, therefore provide immense flexibility, especially compared to satellites that are constrained by their orbits and very short times over the collection target.

The U-2 can fly higher than any other non-orbital platform the U.S. military has, at least that we know about. A very public show of those capabilities came last year when a Dragon Lady flew over a Chinese spy balloon to gather intelligence about it as it soared through U.S. airspace before it was ultimately shot down. Perched in the stratosphere, which requires U-2 pilots to don what are effectively space suits, the jets can also peer obliquely into denied areas.

A picture taken from a US Air Force U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane of the Chinese spy balloon that was ultimately shot down in February 2023. The balloon is seen here soaring somewhere over the central United States. DOD

Still, as already noted, even with the long reach of their sensors, there have been significant and growing questions about the utility of the U-2s in a future high-end conflict given their inability to penetrate into areas where robust air defenses are present. The need for new penetrating ISR platforms has been a hot topic for Air Force officials for years now. This has long been viewed as, at least in part, a veiled reference to a stealthy long-range high-altitude spy drone commonly referred to as the RQ-180. Other uncrewed ISR aircraft may be in development in the classified realm, or even already in limited service, to help meet this requirement. In addition to its primary role as a bomber, the forthcoming stealthy B-21 Raider will also have substantial ISR capabilities.

In addition, details are now starting to emerge about significant work, again largely in the classified realm, on new distributed ISR satellite constellations capable of providing much more flexibility and persistent coverage. You can read more about what is known about these emerging space-based capabilities in this past War Zone piece.

The April Pentagon force structure reports mention of “acceptable levels of risk” and “accepting short-term risks” does raise questions about exactly when these planned replacement capabilities will be available and in sufficient quantities to truly fill the gap left by the retirement of the U-2 fleet.

With all this in mind, it is worth noting that the Air Force has been exploring using the U-2s for non-ISR-related missions in recent years, including acting as powerful communications relay and data fusion gateway nodes. The service said last year that it expected to continue utilizing the jets “in unique and innovative ways” right up until their retirement.

A U-2 fitted with a communications gateway package participating in Exercise Northern Edge 2017. USAF

The U-2 also has a long history of being a valuable resource for use in non-combat missions, including in support of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions. NASA operates a pair of ER-2 variants of the aircraft to support science research activities.

The new move by the House Appropriations Committee is the not first time Congress has blocked U-2 retirement plans, either, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s waiver last year. The Fiscal Year 2025 Defense Appropriations Act still needs to be passed and signed into law, and is likely to evolve significantly in the process.

On top of all this, the Air Force looks to be waiting to the very end to shut down U-2 operations. Per the service’s budget documents and the Pentagon force structure report released back in April, there are no plans now to divest any of the jets in Fiscal Year 2025. The language in the House’s current draft of the Defense Appropriations Act would still prevent any acceleration of the Dragon Lady retirement schedule or preparations for the formal divestment of any U-2s.

Whether Congress will again move to prevent the retirement of the Dragon Lady fleet in Fiscal Year 2026 remains to be seen. In the next year or so, the Air Force could work to assuage any concerns legislators have about its plans to supplant the U-2 and about the schedule for getting the replacement capabilities into service.


The new draft defense spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year does point to yet another battle emerging between the Air Force and Congress over the future of the venerable U-2.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com