BOEING-(IDB) : Boeing is working to convert F-16 fighter aircraft into fully-fledged unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for potential use by US armed forces, IHS Jane's was told on 7 May.
The company has already converted the first six of 126 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons into optionally piloted QF-16 target drones for the US Air Force (USAF), but is looking to add improved datalinks to enable the QF-16 to fly as high and as far as conventional UAVs. This, say company officials, will open the door to future roles in surveillance and close air support.
Boeing could potentially convert hundreds of retired F-16s into UAVs using aircraft stored at the USAF's 'boneyard' in Tuscon, Arizona, where thousands of disused airframes have lain dormant for years. Even more could potentially be converted as the air force retires its current fleets of F-16s.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has previously highlighted the potential for an aircraft like the QF-16 to provide close air support to troops in future combat - a role currently played by manned fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft, and UAVs such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.
Paul Cejas, Boeing's chief engineer on the QF-16 project, told IHS Jane's that the QF-16 UAV would be ideal for strikes into enemy territory and dangerous missions "where you don't want to put pilots in harm's way".
"We think there's a lot of potential in this as having more capability," Cejas said. "Boeing is investing to leverage some of those capabilities. As a UAV it would be faster than a lot of what's out there."
The QF-16 is currently restricted to 'line-of-sight' operations at two bases in the United States: Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. At present, the QF-16's ground control station would lose touch with the aircraft if it flew over the horizon.
But Boeing wants to upgrade the control system to give the QF-16 a range similar to other UAVs. "[The] first step being, we're actually looking to be able to fly this aircraft with an alternate ground station and datalinks so that we don't have to be tied to those two stations," Cejas said. "There's no reason the QF-16 couldn't do what current UAVs do."
The QF-16's capabilities are the same as a manned F-16, except for the internal cannon, removed to help fit in more than 3,000 wires during the conversion. When asked whether the QF-16 had any physical limitations, Cejas said: "I don't think we have any. We basically left all the F-16 systems intact, other than the gun. It's a very small jet and getting enough real estate to fit the wires in [was difficult], but we wanted to keep the basic capabilities in the jet."
Boeing has been contracted by USAF to convert 126 F-16s into the QF-16 version for target practice, but Cejas said the government's long-term requirement is for a total of 210 QF-16s, depending on future budgets. F-16s currently in storage and eligible for conversion number "in the hundreds", he added.
More than 4,500 F-16s have been built since the 1970s and more than 20 countries fly the aircraft, but the QF-16 may not see widespread use by US forces. In addition, the US government would need to approve any sale of the conversion technology, should the prospect of QF-16 conversions become appealing to its allies.
While Boeing's business case for converting hundreds more F-16s into QF-16 UAVs is apparent, it is hard to gauge precisely what benefits the USAF might derive from such a platform. An unmanned F-16 would cost the same as a manned F-16 to operate, and would likely require at least the same level of manpower to support it.
Another issue that might limit the practical utility of a QF-16 UAV is its range. By comparison to UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper, the F-16 is a short-range aircraft that requires aerial refuelling to conduct medium- or long-range strike missions with a meaningful payload. In the near term at least, it would not be possible for an unmanned QF-16 to perform aerial refuelling with the current generation of manned tanker aircraft.
The F-16's fighter performance, also, might actually be a hindrance to its role as an unmanned strike aircraft.
One of the facets of the Predator and Reaper-class of UAV is that they fly relatively slowly and have the endurance required for the operator to stay on station and build up a detailed picture of the area of interest or target for superior situational awareness (SA). An unmanned F-16 would typically be operating at relatively low levels and high speeds. For the ground-based operator, flying a UAV has often been compared to seeing the world through a soda straw, and at low level and high speeds the operator's SA is going to be severely limited.
The QF-16 UAV could be seen to have an application in swamping enemy air defences to sweep the airspace clean for the manned fighter/strike aircraft following behind, but it has to be questioned if this rather limited operational utility would justify the cost to the USAF of recovering and converting hundreds of F-16s from the boneyard for such a niche mission.
Also, while it is true that an unmanned platform would remove all risk from the pilot, there are plenty of men and women around the world today who are more than happy to take such risks.
Source : Jane's