US to retire South Korea-based U-2 spy planes

SEOUL, South Korea – The United States is planning to retire its fabled U-2 spy planes from South Korea and replace them with unmanned drones, an Air Force spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The U-2 has for decades been one of the workhorses in the U.S. Air Force's reconnaissance armada. It achieved international fame when one of its early versions, piloted by Gary Powers, was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Though its role has largely been taken over by satellites, U-2 planes are still deployed to South Korea's Osan Air Base and are believed to play a major part in U.S. operations aimed at keeping an eye on North Korea.

Lt. Col. Rene White, a spokeswoman for the 7th Air Force, headquartered on Osan, said the retirement date has not been set.

"The U-2 would be retiring from Korea," White said. "I don't have a date. It's not soon. It will be something happening in the future."

Korea is one of the primary overseas locations for U-2 operations. The planes are also believed to fly out of Britain and Cypress, and have been used inside the United States to help assess the impact of natural disasters.

White said the sleek, long-winged planes will be replaced by ultrahigh-altitude unmanned reconnaissance planes, or Global Hawks.

Such drones have played an increasingly important part in surveillance in hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U-2, designed in the 1950s for the requirements of the Cold War, is a single-seat plane that can fly at extremely high altitudes and speeds and go without refueling for long missions, making it highly suitable for spy missions.

North Korea has long complained of U.S. spy missions over its airspace, and has often slammed the U-2s as a threat to its safety.

Earlier this week, the North complained in its official media that spy missions increased dramatically last month, when it detonated an underground nuclear device in its second such test.


Associated Press writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.

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