For almost over a half a decade, the United States and a host of allied nations have been able to count upon the services of the highly maneuverable F-16 Fighting Falcon in providing high performance and mission versatility in air-to-air and air-to-surface missions.
The fast and agile fourth-generation F-16 combat-proven multi-role fighter jets are considered the most successful cost-effective fighters on the face of the planet, with approximately 3,000 such fighters operational in around 25 countries.
And the US was not done with them just yet, with the Pentagon converting the F-16 fighters into F-16 drones, called the QF-16s. The drones are then utilized as target practice for other modern fighters currently in the ranks of the Air Force.
The QF-16s are seen as a direct replacement for the supersonic QF-4 reusable full-scale, remotely piloted aerial targets, which have been modified from the F-4 Phantom fighters. For years, the QF-4s have offered the US Air Force with a realistic full-scale target to target their air-to-air weapons.
According to a statement issued by Aerospace juggernauts, Boeing on their website – “The QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target will provide the next generation of combat training and testing for U.S. warfighters. Retired F-16 aircraft are converted into QF-16 aerial targets for the purpose of testing newly developed weapons and tactics,”
The QF-16 will replace the existing QF-4 fleet, and provide a higher capability, fourth-generation aerial target that is more representative of today’s targets and threats.”
The F-16s have had an impressive combat history across the globe since entering service with the US Air Force in 1980, with the USAF purchasing many F-16s over the last two decades.
The oldest of the fighters are placed at the “Boneyard” at the Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, where the presence of heat and dry air conditions preserve the fighters in a good condition.
The process of conversion of the F-16s into the QF-16 drones, which began in 2010, the fighters are pulled from the Boneyard and modified with the help of a Drone Peculiar Equipment Kit, which has been designed by Boeing.
According to Wired, around 32 such fighters were taken from the Davis Monthan Air Force Base this year and were later converted into drones.
Defense writer, Kyle Mizokami, writing for Popular Mechanics, says – “The F-16 is comparatively simple to transform into a drone because, instead of older aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom, the F-16 was a fly-by-wire aircraft in which onboard computers turn the pilot’s commands into action,”
The F-16 was one of the first jets in which computers, not pilots, issued direct controls to the aircraft. Tapping into that system is much easier than installing physical actuators that push manual flight controls.”
The Boeing kit enables the fighter-turned-drones to carry out unmanned take-off and landing, while also powering them to perform complicated aerial maneuvers.
Moreover, instead of being designed to land again, the US Air Force makes use of them as aerial targets for other fighters, with the eventual outcome turning out to them being shot down.
“The QF-16s are used as target practice by manned fighters launching air-to-air missiles. The Air Force’s “Skyborg” AI software, meant to act as an R2-D2 to a pilot in a manned airplane or a computer wingman in a separate, unmanned aircraft, could also be adapted to the QF-16, turning it into a weapon-carrying wingman for an F-22 or F-35 fighter,” said Mizokami.
The Boneyard serves as quite a sending off for the prestigious fighters, with over a hundred such fighters lined up next to each other in the deserts of Arizona, waiting to be launched in the air on their own for one last mission before departing forever.