For the past forty years, the F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the foundation of the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet. Now, the Air Force has a new Full Scale Aerial Target (FSAT). It is the QF-16, a full sized, robotic Drone, live target. Yes, it is an F-16 that can be flown remotely, to give fighter pilots an actual target to test their skills, and new prototype weaponry.
In mid-September, 2013, the Drone QF-16 sat on the runway of Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, ready for its first test flight. The take-off was flawless to begin the sixty-six minute flight over the Gulf of Mexico. During the test, the QF-16 was put through a number of real world maneuvers such as, 6G turns to the right and left, a 7G barrel roll, going vertical in a bat of an eye, and flying at Mach 1.47 at 41,000 feet. Returning to the Air Force Base, the landing was picture perfect. Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, indicated that this real world ‘situation platform’ will take the U.S. into the future, and will be a viable training tool for the next ten to twenty years.
The Drone QF-16 is the fourth generation of FSATs which will be phasing out the obsolete and depleted QF-4 Phantom FSATs. The refitting, of the F-16s into Drones, is being done by Boeing, and the F-16s are being supplied from the Air Force salvage yard in Arizona. Boeing has delivered the first six at a cost of approximately seventy million USD which covers research, development, manufacturing, and installation. The delivery of an additional one hundred twenty will commence with the start of the year 2015.
Once the initial test flight regiments have been completed at Tyndall Air Force Base, the new FSATs will be moved to Holloman Air Force Base in Arizona. It is there the QF-16 will undergo live fire testing. The initial testing will be to train fighter pilots in the rapidly changing environment of aerial warfare, and finally, in new weapons testing on a Full Scale Aerial Target.
One might ask, “Why is the United States spending money to create the Drone QF-16?” It is the law. U.S. Law (Title 10, Section 2366 of the U.S. Code) states a missile system must undergo lethality testing before it can enter full-scale production. In other words, in order to enter into production on prototype air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles they must be fired at a target that is full-size, fully capable, combat configured aircraft targets. In addition to testing offensive weaponry, the Air Force can test defensive maneuvers, chaff and flare releases, and radar jamming among other new and classified defensive countermeasures. All of this can occur without potential loss to human life.
The purpose of the FSAT program is to keep the U.S. fighter pilots on the cutting edge of aerial warfare. It will teach them superior skills in flying, and utilization of a whole host of offensive and defensive weapons which will keep our pilots safe, and the civilian populations safer.