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.