We’re all familiar with F-16s. We’re all familiar with drones. But we’re not all quite so familiar with F-16s flying like drones. Little do most people realize, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin actually started flying robo-F-16s in complex training exercises back in 2017.
Attempts at “dronifying” the F-16 were validated by two weeks of exercises conducted at Edwards Air Force Base in California almost two years ago. Staff from the Air Force Research Lab, the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Lockheed Martin, and Calspan Corporation were all involved in the project and conducting of exercises that included having the F-16 plan and execute air strikes according to “mission priorities and available assets.”
According to Lockheed Martin, the F-16 drone carried out a complex flight demonstration in which it served as a “surrogate Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).”
The demonstration was deemed a success after the plane demonstrated its ability to accomplish three primary objectives: the ability to “autonomously plan and execute air-to-ground strike missions” based on the aforementioned mission priorities and available assets; the ability to “dynamically react to a changing threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission” which included managing contingencies for a number of potential failures, and finally, the ability to allow for the “rapid integration of software components developed by multiple providers.”
It stands to reason that purpose-built wingmen could one day fly alongside the latest in fighter jets like the scenario depicted in the movie “Stealth,” but for the time being, converting the U.S.’s existing stockpile of F-16s would mean only the cost of converting the already air-worthy platforms, rather than devoting funds to the research, development, and construction of an entirely new drone design.
What do you think? Will we see legacy platforms lead new lives as UCAVs in support of 5th and 6th generation aircraft? While you think it over, go for a spin in this pilot-less target aircraft F-16, just to get a feel for how weird this idea looks in practice.