The US Air Force next week will finalize the conversion of a fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16s into expendable unmanned aircraft by shooting one with an air-to-air missile fired from an operational jet fighter.
A Boeing F-15 will fire the missile – which will not be equipped with a warhead – at the modified drone aircraft in the final test of the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the QF-16 air superiority target programme. The test initially was scheduled for 27 August, but was postponed for an unspecified reason, a Boeing spokesman says.
Boeing in March 2010 was awarded the multi-year contract to convert retired block-15, block-25 and block-30 F-16 A and C models that are currently sitting in the US Defence Department’s aviation bone yard outside Tucson, Arizona, into unmanned aircraft that can be used as aerial targets for fighter training. The QF-16 replaces the outdated QF-4, Vietnam War-era McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms converted to fly without pilots in the cockpit.
F-16s converted to targeting drones – which are controlled by air force pilots in a remote ground station – are better able to replicate the combat capabilities of fourth-generation fighters, including the RAC MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30 and other F-16s, of which about 4,500 are in service worldwide. The Phantom drones are obsolete and much of the fleet has already been blown from the sky by operational jets during training.
In July, a surface-to-air missile was fired at a QF-16 over White Sands Missile Range, but failed to get close enough to the aircraft to “score” a hit, Paul Cejas, Boeing’s chief engineer for the QF-16 project, tells Flightglobal. The QF-16 operated flawlessly, despite the miss, he says.
The SAM crew did not intend to take the QF-16 down. Rather than destroy one of only six EMD aircraft, Boeing installed a system that would score a SAM hit if the missile narrowly misses the aircraft.
“The missile did not make contact,” he says. “Going into the mission, that early in the testing stage, we still had operational tests to do. So they were hoping to get close but didn’t really want to hit it. They did come pretty darn close but not close enough. However, we are satisfied that everything on the aircraft worked well.”
The live-fire testing is performed by air force personnel, who in next week’s test plan to actually score a hit, though the inert missile may not bring down the QF-16, Cejas says.
“They are not going to finesse at this point, they will try to hit it,” Cejas said prior to the test. “It could glance off and not actually blow it out of the sky, but the intention is to hit it this time.”
Finalising EMD will clear the way for low-rate initial production (LRIP), the first batch of which will begin conversions in September in Jacksonville, Florida. The first two jets of that LRIP lot are already at Boeing's facility there, Cejas says. LRIP 1 calls for 13 aircraft and the company is already on contract for a second lot of 23. It also has options for another three blocks of between 21 and 25 units, Cejas says.
The air force has identified a need for 210 QF-16s over the life of the program, he says. Though there is no published requirement for weaponising the F-16 or converting them for operation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Boeing has anticipated an interest in performing that work, Cejas said. The company is independently studying the aircraft’s suitability as an operational unmanned air vehicle like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper, he says.