America Is About to Start Blowing Up Its Own F-16s

The QF-16 is the target drone version of the classic fighter

The U.S. Air Force has just fired a missile at its first remotely controlled QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target near Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The missile in the test was a special one—the Air Force modified so it would come close to the target but not actually hit it. Not all of the flying branch’s tests are so restrained. The Air Force also lets its pilots shoot down drones in certain circumstances.

For “non-lethal” tests, the QF-16 has a built-in scoring system which tells the ground station how close the missile came.

“The ground control station sets the coordinates for the missile,” QF-16-developer Boeing stated in an Aug. 26 release. “Then, using its on board system, the QF-16 validates that the missile hit those coordinates and detects the distance and speed of the missile.”

The missile passes close to the QF-16. Boeing photo

“If all the data matches up, the mission is considered a kill,” Boeing explained.

The contractor has produced an initial six QF-16s for the Air Force to replace QF-4 drones based on the Vietnam War-vintage F-4 fighter. “The F-16 is much more maneuverable,” said Michael Macwilliam, who works on the new drone program. “It can provide our customers with an aerial target that’s got more capabilities.”

If the QF-4's history is any indication, the Air Force could be shooting at—and occasionally shooting down—drone F-16s for decades to come. The Pentagon keeps hundreds of old F-16s in storage.

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