In April 2017 the U.S. Air Force demonstrated that F-16s equipped to operate as UAVs could successfully operate in formation with manned F-16s. This is all part of the “Loyal Wingman” 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, to 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. Upcoming tests will see if the F-16 UAV can 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.
Loyal Wingman came about after four years of effort to develop a UAV version of the F-16. This UAV version was based on the QF-16, the remotely controlled target version of the F-16. Back in 2013 the air force got its first QF-16 flying and began converting over a hundred retired F-16s to QF-16s. 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 (suppression of enemy defenses) or attacking ground targets guarded by heavy air defenses. The air force was already planning to use combat UAVs for this but those are not available yet. It was noted that QF type aircraft use GPS to help with navigation and to insure 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.
There are several other reasons for adapting the F-16 to be a combat UAV in addition to designing combat UAVs from scratch. For one thing, the UAV version of any combat 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. QF-16s used regularly for Loyal Wingman training also makes it possible to monitor (via additional sensors in the QF-16) how extreme (for piloted aircraft) maneuvers stress the fighters. Tests of manned aircraft have always been part of the development and testing process for new and modified aircraft. But those tests were limited by cost (of losing a lot of aircraft). By the 1960s fighter aircraft design had reached the point where the aircraft could perform maneuvers (like high speed turns) that humans could not handle. 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. The remote controlled fighters were able to outmaneuver the same aircraft carrying pilots.
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 air space. 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.
The air force ordered the first QF-16s in 2010 and the initial flight test took place in September 2013. These unmanned F-16s are for use as aerial targets. 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 original plan was to introduce the first QF-16s in 2011. 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 Phantom 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. The existing supply of decommissioned F-4s is exhausted and the QF-16s are arriving just in time. Before the QF-4, the air force had converted 218 F-100s (for use from 1983-92), 136 F-102s (from 1974-85), and 210 F-106s (1990-98) to act as full scale target aircraft. 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 damn things work.
But there are so many retired F-16s available that there are plenty that could 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 vehicles) already exist as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. But an MQ-16 Lawn Dart (the unofficial nickname for the F-16) would be cheaper. This would be an inexpensive way to see what a more ambitious (and larger) UCAV could do.