The U.S. Air Force has ordered another 20 QF-4 drone aircraft.
These are F-4 Phantom fighters 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 it's F-4 fighters in the 1980s. After it converted F-4s into UAVs,
to serve as aerial targets, they became the QF-4. Over 200 have been converted
so far, but the air force is running out of them. There are only a few dozen
left, and training operations destroy about 25 a year. The existing supply of
decommissioned F-4s will keep the air force going until about 2011. Before that,
it will start turning retired F-16s into QF-16s.
Before the QF-4, the air force had converted F-100s (218 of them), F-102s (136)
and F-106s (210) to act as full scale target aircraft. There are smaller UAVs
that are used as small scale targets. The full scale models were 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 damn
The QF-4s can be flown with, or without, a pilot on board. The aircraft use GPS
to help with navigation, and to insure that QF-4s flying in formation don't
collide with one another. The aircraft also carry sensors to detect near misses
The UAV version of an aircraft is superior, in some ways, to one with a pilot in
it. This is mainly because pilots black out when the aircraft makes turns too
sharply, at high speed. The air force discovered how effective this capability
was during the 1970s, when they rigged some jet fighters to fly without a pilot,
and had them go up against manned aircraft.