TechAir Force Secretary to test fly AI-piloted F-16 this spring

Air Force Secretary to test fly AI‑piloted F‑16 this spring

The F-16 remains the most numerous type of fighters in the US Air Force.
The F-16 remains the most numerous type of fighters in the US Air Force.
Images source: © Licensor | Maciej Hypś
5:50 AM EDT, April 12, 2024

Frank Kendall, the Secretary of the US Air Force, recently announced to American senators his intention to be a passenger in a specially configured F-16 fighter jet controlled by artificial intelligence. As reported by The Aviationist, Kendall is volunteering for this flight to personally evaluate the performance of the new autonomous technology in action.

"I’m going to get a ride in an autonomously flown F-16 later this year," Kendall stated. He clarified, "There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works. Hopefully, neither he nor I will be needed to fly the airplane." The Aviationist notes that this eagerly awaited flight is scheduled for this spring.

Embracing the future with autonomous drones

The testing of autonomous drones is underway as part of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project. This initiative envisions a future where the U.S. Army could deploy many autonomous uncrewed aerial vehicles that will work with fifth—or sixth-generation fighters. These advanced fighters are being developed under another U.S. Air Force program called NGAD (Next Generation Air Dominance).

The Aviationist points out that the USAF's goal is to acquire 200 NGAD fighters and 1,000 CCA drones, which would act as "loyal wingmen." Their roles include protecting advanced fighters and serving as scouts or communication relays.

The Air Force Times highlights that the upcoming drone fleet is being designed with future warfare and potential conflicts with China in mind. Given Beijing's advancement in air defense systems, deploying human-crewed aircraft could become exceedingly difficult.

The rationale is that it would be more advantageous and cost-effective to penetrate such defenses using autonomous machines. Drones, anticipated to be less expensive than developing new manned fighters, are expected to cost about one-fourth to one-third of an F-35 fighter's current price, roughly amounting to $20 million each. However, the appearance and capabilities of the forthcoming American drone fleet remain to be specified.

The advent of an autonomous F-16

According to The Aviationist, Frank Kendall is expected to fly in the X-62A test aircraft. The service detailed that this aircraft is the new designation for the NF-16D VISTA (Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft), which the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base manages. Originally an F-16D Block 30 Peace Marble II fighter, this jet has been upgraded with multiple modifications and enhancements for superior performance.

As journalist Norbert Garbarek from WP Tech reported, the Edwards Air Force Base in California has acknowledged the machine as the first to be piloted entirely by artificial intelligence. This notable flight, lasting over 17 hours, was utilized to test various systems, including the VISTA simulation system (VSS), the model-following algorithm (MFA), and the autonomous control simulation system (SACS).

Related content