The Possessed Fighter Jet

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.”

The pilotless cockpit of the QF-16 in mid-flight. (Boeing)
The pilotless cockpit of the QF-16 in mid-flight. (Boeing)

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.


One comment

  1. Actually, the first drones began with the WWII-era “buzz bomb” and camera steerable bombs. ICBMs are a form of drone as well; they are pilot-less, decision-making, targeting, flying machines which now include submersibles. Cruise and Tomahawk missiles are older forms of drones. Newer technology has greatly reduced the size, weight and functionality of drones. Humans cannot make decisions in millisecond time-frames, thus in certain conditions humans have been removed from the decision making process decades ago. Given what can, and does, go astray, this may not yield a fortuitous confluence. Yet, space exploration began with the Atlas rocket – a drone delivery powerplant for Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles.
    Really, the problem is not so much with the technology; the use to which that technology is put is of primary concern. So much power has been concentrated in the hands of so few people. Without public information and active (and informed) participation with effective and prudent results not driven by exclusive profit motive.
    A tremendous technical effort goes into creating drones, typically by teams of specialists driven to achievement. From design-in-depth to creative expression, the terminator series fails to convey the force possible by real-time electronics. We so easily convey financial control to an ATM machine while having no in-depth understanding for the level of complexity supporting it.
    So, while most people’s perspective and perceptions are shaped by what they know or what they’ve seen. An adage: Scientists struggle to understand the universe as it is; Engineers go to create what never was – especially after learning much from science. Really, what that boils down to is the technical vision is far more advanced in some minds and not particularly shared.
    As I write, the rfp’s for powerful lasers able to shoot drones out of the sky before they get anywhere near a target have been issued. The fact that many drones hang around at slow speeds means they are a target for military fighters or precise ground fire – they are designed that way to gather the most information over a very long time. One quick look at a Russian torpedo-missile morph itself toward a target will quell that slow perception instantly.
    The reason so much fear and delay of drones in the US is simple, large scale business fears drone competition on many levels. So, unless you have a military approved drone, forget the FAA approving its use otherwise. This is not an accident no matter the rhetoric.
    Drones present opportunity – from crops, utility inspections, disaster assessment, delivery of urgent care, package delivery and much more. A common sense approach to drones offers much to humanity.

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