The U.S. Air Force is exploring whether it could keep flying its U-2 Dragon Lady high-altitude reconnaissance airplanes for the rest of the century, a service official said March 15.

A “structural study” is looking at whether the Air Force could fully use the U-2’s estimated lifespan of 75,000 flight hours, “which would take them out to 2100,” said Susan Thornton, the Air Force’s director for information dominance programs. “So pretty far out there.” 

An Air Force U-2 flies a training mission. Photo: Air Force.
An Air Force U-2 flies a training mission. Photo: Air Force.

The Air Force, which has been flying the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built plane for decades, already plans to keep it in service until 2055. That durability is due in large part to extensive depot maintenance that rebuilds each aircraft every seven years, Thornton testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel.

The study marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U-2, which the Air Force once intended to begin retiring in fiscal year 2019. The service scrapped those retirement plans after lawmakers objected, citing strong demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. The U-2 collects several forms of intelligence, including imagery and signals.

Besides the study, the Air Force is pursuing other U-2 modernization efforts, including making the ejection seat safer and addressing “diminishing manufacturing sources” for the plane’s sensors, according to Thornton.

Thornton said the Air Force expects to provide more details about its U-2 modernization plans in a “high-altitude annex” to its “Next Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan,” scheduled for completion this spring (Defense Daily, Jan. 4).

Also in her testimony, Thornton said the Air Force’s Air Operation Center (AOC) Pathfinder effort, begun in August 2017, is “going very well.” The AOC Pathfinder is designed to field new software quickly by allowing airmen to provide feedback directly to developers throughout the life of the system.

“By this time, we were expected to have delivered one capability, which was the critical capability for dynamic targeting,” Thornton told lawmakers. “In fact, we’ve delivered four capabilities to Al Udeid [Air Base in Doha, Qatar], so that’s been a great benefit to those users out there.”

The Air Force canceled its previous modernization effort, AOC 10.2, due to cost overruns, schedule delays and performance problems (Defense Daily, July 13, 2017). Northrop Grumman [NOC] was the AOC 10.2 prime contractor.

Commanders use the AOC Weapon System to plan, execute, monitor and assess air, space and cyberspace operations.