The U-2 uses various instruments to gather intelligence; such as multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar devices. Until recently, some very old-school tech was still being used in these peeping planes as well.
Last summer, the wet film cameras were finally removed and replaced with current-gen digital equipment. The canisters used to hold the film were huge, and needed to be unloaded and taken to Beale Air Force Base in California (where the fleet is headquartered) in order to be developed in a dark room.
Over the last two decades, the Air Force has tinkered with the idea of sunsetting one of its most indispensable warriors but, for one reason or another, allowed the U-2 to continue patrolling enemy skies. However, now it looks like the U-2 won’t be able to avoid the forward progress of time much longer.
The Air Force recently announced that it would retire the U-2 in the fiscal year of 2026, in a move to “reshape” how it gathers high-altitude intelligence in the age of high-tech, pilotless drones. Budget documents were presented to Congress showing its plans to keep the current U-2 fleet up and running until the end of September 2025.
After that, the USAF plans on going in a different direction, perhaps through the continued use of its RQ-4 Global Hawk drones — which have also been slated for retirement at least once in the past — or go with something entirely new.