The US Air Force (USAF) is preparing to modify three Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters for autonomous flight.

The single-engined jets have arrived at Eglin AFB’s flight test facilities, where the USAF will perform modifications under the Viper Experimentation and Next-generation Operations Model – Autonomy Flying Testbed (VENOM-AFT) programme.

Located on the Florida panhandle, Eglin is home to two testing squadrons and an artificial intelligence experimentation proving ground.

The USAF confirmed the arrival of the three F-16s on 3 April, saying the aircraft will be used to rapidly evaluate autonomous flight technologies.

“The VENOM programme marks a pivotal chapter in the advancement of aerial combat capabilities,” says Major Ross Elder, developmental test lead for the effort.

F-16 Venom autonomy c USAF

The US Air Force transferred three F-16 fighters to Eglin AFB, where they will be modified for autonomous flight testing

Elder describes the autonomous flight programme as a “measured step towards a new age of aviation”.

“This transformative programme holds the potential to redefine air combat paradigms by fostering novel autonomous functions for current and future crewed and uncrewed platforms,” he says.

VENOM-AFT is designed and funded to accelerate testing of autonomy software on crewed and uncrewed aircraft, according to the air force.

The Pentagon, led by the USAF, is in the midst of a generational push to develop and field thousands of autonomous battlefield systems. At the forefront of this effort is the USAF’s collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) programme, which seeks to deliver pilotless jets that can be teamed with conventionally manned fighters.

The VENOM aircraft will be used to “inform” the development of CCAs and other autonomous platforms, the USAF says, with an eye toward getting CCAs “flying as quickly as possible”.

X-62 VISTA c Lockheed Martin

Source: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin’s X-62A Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft, based on an F-16D, has completed at least 17 flight hours powered by an artificial intelligence agent

While the service did not provide details on the specific modifications each F-16 will undergo for the VENOM programme, the air force does note that pilots will be present in the cockpit during testing to monitor the autonomy systems and ensure test objectives are met.

“A pilot will be involved in the autonomy in real time and maintain the ability to start and stop specific algorithms,” says Lieutenant Colonel Joe Gagnon, commander of Eglin’s 85th Test and Evaluation squadron.

“There will never be a time where the VENOM aircraft will solely fly by itself without a human,” he adds.

Elsewhere, one modified F-16 has already demonstrated the ability to fly without input from a pilot.

An artificial intelligence agent aboard Lockheed’s prototype X-62A VISTA (Variable In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft) successfully logged more than 17 flight hours during evaluations in December 2022 at Edwards AFB – another flight testing centre.

Those sorties included the first instance of an AI engagement of a tactical aircraft, according to Lockheed.

That experimental aircraft is based on a two-seat F-16D, upgraded with F-16 Block 40 avionics. Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works advanced development unit produced the X-62 in cooperation with the USAF.