The U.S. Air Force has successfully converted an F-16 fighter jet into an autonomous combat drone capable of flying missions independently as well as a part of larger operations supported by manned aircraft.  This latest development in the program known as “Have Raider II” could potentially turn aging fighter jets into semi-disposable wingmen for more advanced, piloted planes like the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  It also could dramatically increase the combat capabilities of the U.S. drone arsenal, as the aging F-16 could still put many military drone craft to shame in terms of flight and operational capabilities.

Attempts at “dronifying” the F-16 were validated by two weeks of exercises conducted at Edwards Air Force Base in California recently.  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.”

The aircraft was also expected to “dynamically react to a changing threat environment” while managing “capability failures, route deviations, and loss of communication.”

“This demonstration is an important milestone in AFRL’s maturation of technologies needed to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft in a strike package,” said Capt. Andrew Petry, AFRL autonomous flight operations engineer.

“We’ve not only shown how an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle can perform its mission when things go as planned, but also how it will react and adapt to unforeseen obstacles along the way.”

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 successfully 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.”

“The Have Raider II demonstration team pushed the boundaries of autonomous technology and put a fully combat-capable F-16 in increasingly complex situations to test the system’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing operational environment,” said Shawn Whitcomb, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Loyal Wingman program manager.

“This is a critical step to enabling future Loyal Wingman technology development and operational transition programs.”

With a service wide shortage of capable combat pilots, this technology could prove beneficial from multiple fronts.  A single F-35 pilot could one day see a number of autonomous wingmen in traditional fighter aircraft flying alongside him or her, advancing on anti-aircraft targets and rejoining the formation if each drone manages to survive their engagements with defensive hurdles along the way to the primary objective which could then be carried out by the primary, manned aircraft.

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.

Although light-years behind some of the technology offered in the latest fighter jets, the F-16 remains a formidable opponent for most fighters in the sky as well as ground based air defenses, meaning a fully autonomous F-16 could be considered one of the more capable drones on the planet.

America’s enemies have long feared the presence of a U.S. Air Force F-16 in the skies above them, and that likely won’t change without a pilot in the cockpit.


Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force