China, like most other nations with large air forces, have taken some older aircraft and converted them to unmanned aircraft for use as realistic target drones. These are used for training pilots and testing air-to-air missiles. The first of these appeared in the 1950s using Russian MiG-15s. China built its own copies of later Russian aircraft, often improving them and using them long after Russia had stopped production. These included the J5 (MiG-17), J6 (MiG 19) and J7 (MiG-21). China also built higher performance target drones using original designs. Again, this was similar to designs pioneered by the United States. In some cases, China obtained the wreckage of American target drones and reverse-engineered the tech. Recently, China has done something quite different with several hundred retired J6 fighters by turning them into J6W unmanned SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) aircraft or, by arming them with half a ton of bombs, as cruise missiles pretending to be fighter-bombers. Satellite photos show these unmanned J6W aircraft stationed near the coast opposite Taiwan.
Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force continues to convert older fighters into target droves for realistic air combat training. The latest example of this showed up in 2013 when the first QF-16s completed development. The QF-16s are converted from existing F-16s that have been retired from service. The air force ordered 125 QF-16s and deliveries began in 2015. Each QF-16 conversion costs about $1.2 million and consists of installing hardware and software that enables remote (no pilot in the cockpit) flight control. The process of equipping the F-16 with all the necessary sensors (cameras and remote feeds of the aircraft radar) and remote capabilities took longer than expected, even though there was a lot of experience doing this to older aircraft (F-4s, F-100s, F-102s, and F-106s). The QF-16s can still carry a pilot who can fly the aircraft or simply observe how the remote-control process is working.
The QF-16 replaces the older QF-4 drone aircraft. Nearly 250 F-4 fighters were modified to fly by remote control. The mods cost about $1.4 million per aircraft. The QF-4 first appeared when the U.S. Air Force retired its F-4 fighters in the 1980s. The air force has run out of retired (but still flyable) F-4s to convert and QF-4 conversions ceased in 2013.
Training operations destroy up to 25 remotely controlled QF class fighters a year. As the supply of decommissioned F-4s was exhausted, the QF-16s arrived just in time. Before the QF-4, the air force had converted 218 F-100s and used them from 1983-92. The 136 F-102s served from 1974 to 1985. The 210 F-106s served from 1990 to 1998. There are smaller UAVs that are also used as targets. The full-scale models are needed to fully test the capabilities of new, and existing, missiles. Nothing like using real missiles against real targets to build pilot confidence and be sure the missiles work.
There are so many retired F-16s available that plenty can be used as combat UAVs. The F-16 manufacturer (Lockheed) is not doing the UAV conversion research, but rather another aircraft company (Boeing) which sees a potential market for such aircraft. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial vehicle) already exist as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. In 2014 there were proposals for an MQ-16 Lawn Dart (the unofficial nickname for the F-16) armed UAV. This would be an inexpensive way to see what a more ambitious (and larger) UCAV could do. But the cost of developing the MQ-16 was deemed too high to be worthwhile. By 2014 MQ-9s were demonstrating their ability to take over some F-16 ground attack functions and work was underway to develop even higher performance unmanned combat aircraft that could operate autonomously.
Meanwhile, the American AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) had, by 2019, developed and tested a new system that can turn any manned aircraft into an unmanned aircraft, controlled by a system of electronics and mechanical devices that literally replaces the human pilot in the cockpit. This “ROBOPilot” system can be quickly removed so the aircraft needs a human pilot once more. Installation takes a little longer, but not by much because the device is designed to be available quickly should the need arise.
What is novel about ROBOPilot is not that it can replace a human pilot but that the ROBOPilot equipment is flexible enough to be quickly installed in any manned aircraft. ROBOPilot software has to have an electronic profile of each aircraft it can be installed in and has to be tested to ensure the ROBOPilot mechanical components can use all the controls of that aircraft. That said, cockpits on aircraft are pretty standard. The most complex and eccentric cockpits are for fighter aircraft and the air force has decades of experience building custom versions of what became ROBOPilot for several generations of jet fighters.
The first test aircraft for ROBOPilot was a fifty-year-old Cessna single-engine commercial aircraft. These aircraft don’t have a lot of the electronic controls that modern aircraft use. While electronic controls are easier for ROBOPilot, the most difficult aspect of developing ROBOPilot is creating a robotic arm and hand to handle the many tasks a human pilot has to handle. The 1960s Cessna was mostly mechanical controls and analog displays for instruments. Moreover, the Cessna cockpit is cramped compared to more modern aircraft. The Cessna, in effect, was a more challenging test for ROBOPilot than a larger more modern aircraft. But the Cessna was also cheaper to use as a test aircraft for the first flight, from a remote airfield in a thinly populated area, in case all the safety devices failed and there was a crash. There were no problems and the entire two-hour flight was recorded on video from inside the aircraft.
The ROBOPilot project continued to add features that make it possible to adapt the basic ROBOPilot system to other aircraft. The goal is to have a ROBOPilot kit that aircraft maintainers can, with a minimum of training, install in any of the aircraft ROBOPilot has a “profile” for. This includes test flights and regular profile upgrades to match changes made to each aircraft’s flight controls.
ROBOPilot was developed, in part, because of a larger “Loyal Wingman” program that uses drone fighters, or other types of aircraft, for particularly dangerous missions. That idea was the outgrowth of more than half a century of efforts to automate cockpit functions. By the 1970s it was possible to create robotic pilots for fighter aircraft. Back then that had some very critical practical applications. The main purpose of remotely controlled fighter aircraft so they can be used as realistic aerial targets. The equipment used to convert retired fighters into robotic ones has become more capable and reliable since the 1970s, and part of that effort turned into the successful development of automatic landing systems for commercial aircraft, which are now a common item that takes a lot of stress out of landing an airliner at night or in bad weather. This software has even been adapted to land jet fighters or naval UAVs on aircraft carriers at night.
This led to Loyal Wingman. In early 2017 the air force demonstrated that F-16s equipped to operate as UAVs could successfully operate in formation with manned F-16s. This was an important goal for “Loyal Wingman”, a program for eventually integrating combat UAVs with piloted warplanes. The F-16 UAV needed software that would allow it to fly in formation, execute attack missions on its own and avoid interference from jamming. That software worked although the initial flight tests of Loyal Wingman simply confirmed that the F-16 UAVs could safely fly in formation with piloted F-16s and effectively receive and respond to commands from the flight leader or other piloted F-16s.
Work is continuing to develop software that will enable the F-16 UAV to carry out complex attack runs on its own. This involves avoiding ground fire (mainly missiles) and using its own EW (electronic warfare) equipment to deal with jamming. All this live software testing would eventually be used in combat UAVs like the ones the navy has been testing and the air force is now developing. The U.S. Army has already been testing similar software control of UAVs by suitably equipped (with secure digital commo gear) attack helicopters. China is apparently using such Loyal Wingman software for its J6W SEAD aircraft.
Loyal Wingman came about after the QF-16 went into production. At the time it was noted that with a little extra work the QF-16 could be turned into a combat UAV for dangerous missions like SEAD or attacking ground targets guarded by heavy air defenses, which is what the Chinese J6W is doing.
The U.S. was already planning to use combat UAVs for this and some of these recently became available as 5th Generation (F-22 and F-35) target drones that will test air defenses as well as aircraft capabilities against such aircraft. QF type aircraft now use GPS to help with navigation and to ensure that QFs flying in formation don't collide with one another. The QF-16 also carries sensors to detect near misses by missiles. Out of that came modified software and some additional hardware to enable the recent flight tests.
The QF-16 has already demonstrated its ability to carry out acrobatic maneuvers under remote control. This would be useful in getting into heavily defended airspace. Adding more sensors and flight control software could produce a formidable combat UAV. Even when all the QF-16 conversions are completed there will be several hundred retired F-16s suitable for conversion to combat UAVs.
China is developing its own versions of 5th Generation fighter drones using the stealth technology they have developed.