From Phantoms to Vipers: U.S. Evolves Its FSATs

by Larry Dickerson, Forecast International.

QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target  (Source: Boeing)
QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target (Source: Boeing)

The United States is turning to F-16 Vipers to supply airframes for full-scale aerial targets (FSAT). Boeing, in cooperation with BAE Systems, is building the QF-16 Air Superiority Target to support the Pentagon’s FSAT program. The aircraft will make its operational debut in 2016, and Boeing could manufacture 126 QF-16s and perhaps as many as 210.

Even as unmanned combat air vehicles slowly become a reality, the fact is the United States already operates the world’s largest fleet of unmanned fighter aircraft.  Of course, these unmanned aircraft have never engaged an enemy in combat or even left the airspace of the United States.

For decades, many U.S.-made combat aircraft have met their end in a fireball over the Gulf of Mexico at the hands of U.S. weapons systems.  These aircraft are part of the Pentagon’s FSAT program.  Hundreds of retired combat aircraft, converted to unmanned flight, provide realistic simulations of hostile fighters during training exercises and weapons systems evaluations. Among the early aircraft to join the FSAT program were the F-86, F-100 and F-106.  The largest conversion effort focused on F-4 Phantoms.

BAE Systems, then the FSAT prime contractor, successfully converted its 300th F‑4 Phantom fighter jet into a drone on November 4, 2012.  BAE Systems delivered the final QF-4 in July 2013 as part of Lot 17. Although the U.S. built thousands of F-4 fighters, the supply of available airframes for conversion to full-scale aerial targets was not limitless.

Now, the F-16 will step into this role. Delays have pushed back the operational debut of the QF-16 from 2015 to 2016.

Even as the QF-16 prepares to enter service, the Pentagon is considering the development of another new full-scale aerial target.  This new target is needed since the QF-16 is not capable of simulating the characteristics of fifth-generation combat aircraft.  The QF-X might appear around 2025.

Meanwhile, the final QF-4 is expected to meet its fiery end in 2017.

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