By Arthur Holland Michel
In the public imagination, military drones shoot at things. But in fact, throughout their history, drones have much more often served to be shot at. This week, Boeing released a video of its latest drone project: an old F-16 fighter jet that had been turned into a remotely piloted aircraft to be used as a live target for fighter pilots in manned aircraft to shoot at during training exercises. The QF-16, as it is called, has all the capabilities of a manned fighter jet; it can fly at 40,000 ft and will easily hit supersonic speeds. All it’s missing is the ammo (and the pilot, obviously).
This is an important leap in military tech development. Unless you want to sacrifice a pilot, a remotely controlled fighter plane is the only way to give trainees the experience of engaging, and destroying, an enemy aircraft in a dogfight. “It will make our American and Allied aircrew, aircraft and weapons more reliable and more lethal,” said Lt. Col. Lance Wilkins, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron commander. “It will serve a new generation of warriors.”
Supersonic capabilities aside, the QF-16 is nothing new. In fact, the first military drones, which were developed in World War II, served the very same purpose as the QF-16. Celebrity trivia fans will remember that Marilyn Monroe worked in a factory assembling target-practice drones before she became famous. In fact, her career was launched when Ronald Reagan snapped a photo of her posing next to one of her drones. To this day, the military continues to use relatively rudimentary UAVs for target practice. In July of this year, a QF-4, which, like the QF-16, is a drone version of a jet fighter (in this case, an F-4 Phantom), crashed into a remote Florida highway near Tyndall Air Force Base, though nobody except Floridians seemed to pay too much attention.
Target drones have also been used in active combat as decoys. The first recorded use of modern drones as decoys was by the Israeli Air Force in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. The IAF dispatched a fleet of Grumman Chukar drones into the Golan Heights in order to fool the Syrian army into thinking that they were under attack from weaponized, manned aircraft. Once the Syrians had depleted their anti-aircraft munitions on the decoys, the IAF deployed their manned aircraft.
The long history of drones as targets, rather than as targeting devices, complicates the prevailing notion that drones are exclusively intelligent and predatory in nature. Indeed, even weaponized drones that are designed to seek and destroy targets are themselves eminently targetable. As Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the air service’s Air Combat Command, explained at this year’s Air Force Association conference, the current weaponized systems do not stand a chance in aerial combat against manned fighter jets. The Predator and Reaper drones are powered by relatively simple–and small–propeller engines and cannot achieve speeds anywhere near those achieved by manned fighter jets.
This alternative history is important to consider, as more old fighter jets like the F-16 are re-commissioned as target drones in order to advance different militaries’ air-to-air capabilities. The idea of the drone as the targeted, rather than the targeter, will become much more visible in the coming years.