Will the QF-16 be the next step in drone warfare?
What happens when a fighter jet is too old to be used in combat by the Air Force, but too expensive to totally dump? It becomes a drone, at least sometimes it does. The F-16 Fighting Falcon was acquired by Boeing after being retired by the Air Force. In turn the aerospace company turned the old-school jet into a brand new drone to be used for military training.
The newly renamed QF-16 recently had its first successful pilot-less flight at Tyndall Air Force base in Florida. The flight included testing for simulated maneuvers including a barrel roll and a split S, as well as reaching supersonic speeds and landing while being flown remotely by two pilots on the ground. The report claims the plane reached 7Gs, but is capable of 9Gs.
The plane is one of six retired F-16s from Holloman Air Force Base that Boeing has modified into QF-16, in the hopes of creating a more modern opponent for training fighter pilots.
For safety reasons, the test flight also featured two chase planes and a self-destruct option. [No details on the self-destruct were available, but it is nonetheless intriguing.]
The plan is to use the QF-16s to replace the current training plane, a F-4 Phantom modified into a QF-4. The Phantom is a Vietnam-era plane, so the QF-16 represents a major attempt on the part of the Air Force to modernize the training techniques for pilots.
The QF-16s will be used as “aerial targets,” which are planes that simulate how an enemy jet might act during an actual military engagement. Obviously, allowing trainees to work with a real plane that is capable of the maneuvers and tricks the pilots might encounter in real life is much more useful to the training than any robot or simulation ever could be. This comes with the added bonus of not endangering anyone in the “enemy” plane because it’s controlled by a pilot on the ground.
“It’s a replication of current, real world situations and aircraft platforms they can shoot as a target. Now we have a 9G capable, highly sustainable aerial target,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, in a statement released by Boeing. After a few more tests, including live fire tests at Holloman Air Force Base, the planes will be used by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group.
Training is all well and good, but it also raises an interesting point for the future of warfare. If we have planes— particularly fighter jets—that are capable of performing the same maneuvers as piloted-jets, why isn’t the military using them for more than training? The military already uses drones, so is this the natural evolution? It’s a great training technique, perhaps the best way to train pilots. However, why risk a pilot’s life when the planes can be controlled from the ground? These are the questions that future military (and political) leaders will be asking.
The bigger discussion should focus on how comfortable we are with the potential for these fighter jets to become weapons in war and where we, as a nation, draw the line.