Beale AFB picked to host new battle management squadron

by Vern Evans

Beale Air Force Base, California, will soon bring on a new mission to replace two fleets of reconnaissance aircraft that have defined the installation since the 1970s.

The Air Force announced Tuesday that Beale will add a new battle management control squadron, bringing 140 personnel to the base in the coming years. Squadron staff are expected to begin arriving this summer.

The service called the move a “vital step” in its effort to modernize battle management, the enterprise that handles data on potential threats, troop movements and other information the military needs to plan and direct operations. The Air Force hopes it can leverage an array of sensors and new artificial intelligence tools to provide that data, rather than relying on fleets of purpose-built aircraft and manual analysis.

While the Air Force declined to provide specifics of what Beale’s new squadron will do, it said the unit will integrate with the base’s Common Mission Control Center, run by the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron. The center consolidates information — like images, target-tracking data and other communications — collected around the clock by the military’s network of aircraft, satellites, ships, ground radars and more, then analyzes and shares it with other units and decisionmakers.

The squadron will “perform battle management of manned and unmanned new and legacy aircraft, and allow greater collaboration between information systems,” the Air Force said in a release.

It’s unclear whether the new squadron will absorb airmen who operate Beale’s fleet of U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft, which are slated to retire starting in fiscal year 2026.

The announcement follows the stand-up of the 728th Battle Management Control Squadron at Robins AFB, Georgia, in February 2023. That squadron is tasked with helping to deconflict airspace, set rendezvous points for aerial refueling and provide tactical reconnaissance in U.S. Central Command.

It was established as Robins prepared to retire its E-8 Joint STARS ground target-tracking fleet, the last of which left the base late last year. The 728th absorbed airmen from the 116th and 461st Air Control Wings, which flew JSTARS, and took over duties from the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, which is now based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.

Like Robins, Beale will pivot to a larger battle management role as it phases out multiple legacy aircraft: the U-2 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone.

Beale’s 27 Cold War-era U-2 spy planes rotate through military installations around the globe on high-altitude reconnaissance missions that require their pilots wear astronaut-like suits to breathe at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. But service officials argue there are more reliable, cost-effective ways to photograph enemy compounds and military buildups. Air Force fiscal 2025 budget documents include plans to scale back the plane’s maintenance funding by more than $85 million.

One of Beale’s U-2 trainers took its final flight earlier this year as the base prepares to downsize the rest of the fleet.

Beale retired its last RQ-4, the high-flying drone that was meant to replace the U-2, in 2022.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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