- The U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane will officially retire in 2026, 69 years after it first flew.
- The plane was originally designed to overfly the Soviet Union, gathering vital information on the country’s nuclear weapons program.
- The high-flying black jet has had a part in nearly every military crisis since 1955, from being shot down over Russia to the Chinese balloon episode.
The U-2 spy plane, one of America’s most iconic jet aircraft, will retire in 2026; that’s the official word from the U.S. Air Force, the plane’s operator. For nearly seven decades, the U-2 has quietly kept tabs on adversaries, provided valuable data on crises, and paced threats to America and her allies. From counting Soviet missiles to chasing Chinese spy balloons over the continental United States, the U-2 is always there, maintaining its quiet vigil.
The Missile Gap
In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon, followed by its first hydrogen bomb test in 1955—the era of American dominance in nuclear weapons was over. This presented the United States government with a problem: how to calibrate defense spending, particularly spending on nuclear weapons, to match the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
The USSR was a closed society, and government propaganda was not a reliable indicator of what was going on in the country. The Eisenhower Administration decided it needed its own means of measuring Soviet progress on nukes, one that could overfly the country and literally count missiles and missile facilities. From this requirement, the U-2 was born.
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In 1955, Lockheed’s famous “Skunk Works” division proposed a high-flying spy aircraft that could overfly the Soviet Union, taking photographs of targets below. The CL-282, as it became known, was a single-engine aircraft derived from the XF-104 Starfighter fighter jet, with larger, plank-like wings to maximize fuel efficiency. The single-person aircraft would have a range of nearly 3,000 miles, allowing it to take off from countries like Norway and Turkey, swoop into Soviet airspace to take pictures, and then return with the photos.
The U-2 program was approved, but not by the U.S. Air Force. In a first, the Central Intelligence Agency would operate the aircraft, using “sheep-dipped” (military pilots flying for the CIA as civilians) aircrews. The aircraft was first codenamed “Aquatone,” and later redesignated an intentionally misleading “U-2,” with the U in U.S. military aircraft parlance simply meaning “Utility,” typically given to seaplanes, transport helicopters, and other mundane, non-spy aircraft not owned and operated by the CIA.
Aquatone would be invulnerable to Soviet air defenses. The plane’s one neat trick was that it could simply overfly Soviet surface-to-air missile systems, which could not reach the spy plane’s cruising altitude of 55,000, and later 70,000, feet. This was an advantage that the CIA estimated would last two years at best, but in the meantime the plane would have unprecedented access to the Soviet Union’s secrets.
The U-2’s invulnerability, it turned out, lasted for four years. In May 1960, a U-2 piloted by Maj. Francis Gary Powers was shot down near Sverdlovsk by a new S-75 “Dvina” long-range surface-to-air missile system. The U-2 could continue to fly over locations the S-75 wasn’t, such as Cuba or China, but by the mid-1960s, the missile had proliferated to the point that direct overflights were deemed too risky for anything other than satellites in low-Earth orbit.
A National Asset
In addition to the Soviet Union, the U-2 overflew China, Cuba, Venezuela, Indonesia, Tibet, Laos, North Korea, Nicaragua, and other countries, typically those in the Soviet bloc. After the Cold War, the planes were used to find drug lords in Colombia, check for oil spills in Alaska, keep tabs on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, track the insurgency in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, locate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, and spy on North Korea’s nuclear program. There are almost certainly other, classified missions that are still unknown even today.
Different payload packages were developed for different missions, a task that became even more important as the U-2 was shut out of more and more enemy airspace. Packages included panoramic cameras, imaging radar, electro-optical sensors, communication relays, and even air sniffers designed to detect traces of radiation in the atmosphere from nuclear weapons tests. Many of these sensors, including cameras and radar, could peer into a country from international or friendly airspace, using the plane’s unprecedented altitude to see hundreds of miles into a target space.
In recent years, the U-2 has taken on a new role: an experimental testbed for new capabilities. The likely targeting of U.S. military satellites in wartime by a peer adversary such as China has led the Air Force to consider high-flying aircraft as backup communications and networking nodes, relaying intelligence, orders, and other data. In 2020, the U-2 was the first military aircraft to act as a flying software download platform for computers on the ground. While seemingly a small feat, it highlighted the plane’s ability to cruise at 70,000 feet and act as a flying wireless node for other U.S. forces across a wide area below.
The U-2 is still useful today. In the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U-2s flew into Ukrainian airspace to observe the buildup of Russian forces, leading analysts to conclude an invasion was imminent. In March 2023, U-2s were used to image a Chinese spy balloon as it drifted across the continental United States. The U-2 was the only aircraft that could pace the balloon as it flew at an altitude of 60,000 feet.
The year 2026 will cap a remarkable 68-year career for the U-2. The sheer scale of the plane’s contribution to nearly every foreign policy and military crisis since 1955 is unmatched by any other aircraft. The slow, ungainly, unarmed U-2 has soared on while faster, more agile, and more lethal aircraft have burned brightly and then flown to the Boneyard. The U-2 is indisputably one of the most important U.S. military aircraft of the last 70 years.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.