F-16 trio touches down in Florida, awaits self-piloting tech upgrade

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The journey towards enhancing its airborne combat and technological capabilities is one that the US Air Force is eager to embark on. In a momentous event, three F-16 Fighting Falcons landed elegantly at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. An upgrade is looming for these heavyweight champions of the sky as they stand at the precipice of a transformation. This will convert them from manually piloted aircraft to autonomous drones, as part of the celebrated self-piloting Venom Program. 

Photo credit: USAF

Known in full as the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model-Autonomy [VENOM-A] Flying Testbed program, this initiative by the US Air Force signals a drive toward researching and developing advanced autonomous capabilities for future air missions. This ambitious project forms a segment of a larger, overarching plan aimed at enhancing the operational efficiency and efficacy of the Air Force through the integration of autonomous systems. 

VENOM-A program

Photo credit: Twitter

The VENOM-A program is built around a structure of exhaustive research, meticulous development, alongside rigorous testing and evaluation processes. Its objective is to birth and roll out autonomous systems capable of backing a broad spectrum of air operations. The expectation is that these systems, driven by data and analytics, will sharpen decision-making skills, minimize the risks of human error, and hasten the accuracy of responses in a diverse range of operational settings. An added focus of the program is to spawn technologies capable of enabling aircraft to function in areas where GPS services are non-existent, thereby amplifying their chances of survival in adversarial circumstances.

In the VENOM-A project, an unspecified set of aircraft are slated to receive advanced overhauls. Details regarding the aircraft involved and the nature of their upgrades remain undisclosed to the public. Still, it’s safe to speculate the enhancements will likely focus on incorporating advanced autonomous systems and technologies to boost operational capabilities. Likely enhancements might include superior sensing apparatus for heightened situational understanding, cutting-edge navigation systems for functioning in GPS-denied surroundings, and high-end algorithms for autonomous decision-making. 

On the whole, the VENOM-A initiative signifies remarkable headway in the US Air Force’s quest to leverage advanced technology to amplify its operational capabilities. By introducing and integrating autonomous mechanisms into its aircraft, the Air Force is on a mission to sustain its technological superiority and remain primed for future operational challenges. 

Photo credit: USAF

F-16 transformation

The transformation journey will begin with F-16s as human-operated jets, gradually shifting to autonomous software control during flight trials. The US Air Force showcases keen interest in demonstrating the viability of autonomous flight, positioning itself in line with the Joint Combat Aircraft [CCA] scheme.

Envisioning a future where autonomy plays a crucial role, CCA aims to integrate over 1,000 autonomous aircraft into the F-35A and next-generation Air Dominance fighter systems lineup. This would mean that for every 200 NGAD platforms, there would be two CCAs, and for every 300 F-35s, two more CCAs would be added. 

These autonomous satellites are versatile, capable of numerous roles. They can engage in electronic warfare, undertake intelligence gathering missions, act as front-line scouts, and even strike enemy targets with an armament of guns or missiles. Furthermore, these CCAs double as decoys when necessary, adding an extra layer of strategic advantage. 

Budget

Looking ahead to the forecasted 2024 budget, an outlay of approximately $50 million has been set aside specifically for the VENOM project. The initiative aims to test autonomous software onboard F-16 aircraft. Additionally, a further $69 million is allocated to form a pioneering team tasked with laying the groundwork and establishing procedures for smoothly integrating CCA into the squadron.

Video screenshot

Frank Kendall, the Secretary of the Air Force, suggested in November 2023 that the planned fleet of CCA units might well surpass the initial estimate of 1,000 units earmarked for the operation. 

However, before any widescale deployment can be considered, there’s a need for a comprehensive grasp of autonomous flight technology to ensure it can be seamlessly woven into common unit procedures. Project Venom trials aim to assist in this matter by collecting crucial data from the live interaction between pilots and AI machines during flight. 

The design of these tests is geared towards providing the USAF with insights on how to guide squadrons to deploy CCAs efficiently and reducing potential hazards that may occur when autonomous drones share the skies with human-operated aircraft.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald

Need to be cost-effective

The matter of cost is a crucial one when it comes to the affordability of CCAs. They need to be cost-effective enough to offset any potential losses in combat situations. According to Kendall, the pricing of the CCA could fall within 25-33% of the F-35, which results in a price tag within $20-27 million. This level of cost-effectiveness could allow for more daring mission execution for CCA, thereby lessening the risk to our human aviators. Unfortunately, this proposal wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by the US Congress in terms of funding support. 

As a result, the U.S Air Force is ceaselessly investigating alternate paths to kickstart this task, eyeing 2028 as their target year for operational capability. Kendall has indicated that ‘potential contractors’ are willing to commence preliminary tasks even before the full program gets the green light. 

September 19

Let’s take a step back in history, to a sunny day on September 19, 2013 when the U.S. Air Force conducted their first test flight of an unmanned F-16 fighter jet. This historic event unfolded at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base. Executing the test was the commendable 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, a division of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. They converted an F-16 into a QF-16 drone, to facilitate this monumental test.

For a duration of 55 minutes, the QF-16, unmanned, soared into the skies, expertly guided by a pair of Air Force test pilots stationed on land. A significant achievement was accomplished when the aircraft scaled a height of 40,000 feet and a blistering speed of Mach 1.47. Validation of the QF-16’s capacity to perform intricate maneuvers, such as a barrel roll and a ‘split S’, solidified its similarities with the manned counterpart. 

Photo credit: USAF

With this successful test, a blueprint for the future uses of QF-16s was created. It primarily focuses on serving as aerial targets for the testing of up-and-coming weapons and tactical strategies. This success story marks an important milestone in the books of unmanned aviation, showcasing the potential of piloting fighter jets remotely. 

QF-16 vs F-16

Allow me to introduce the QF-16, a product of Boeing – a fully-scaled aerial target drone designed by modifying the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a multirole fighter aircraft initially built by General Dynamics for the United States Air Force. Outfitted with a flight termination system, an on-board data collection system, and other unique gear, the QF-16 serves as an authentic target for evaluating, developing, and testing air-to-air weapons systems. 

The QF-16 boasts a two-fold mode of operation – unmanned and manned. When it’s on unmanned mode, the controls pivot from the ground. However, on the manned mode, it functions as any regular F-16 would. Why is the QF-16 an ideal target? The credit goes to its resemblances with the F-16, including the capability to supersede the sonic speed and execute 9-g maneuvers. 

Notwithstanding the primary roles of F-16s being air superiority and ground attacks, the primary purpose behind designing the QF-16 is to act as an actual target for weapons testing. Even though combat isn’t its main emphasis, its superior performance traits pose a challenge for weapons systems. In a nutshell, the QF-16 and the F-16 share more siblings than twins. However, their distinctive roles set them apart. QF-16, with its necessary modifications, serves as a valid target for weapons testing. On the other hand, the F-16 encompasses the versatile traits of a combat aircraft.

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