Military, Unmanned

How Boeing Converts F-16s to Unmanned Configuration

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | October 14, 2016
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[Avionics Magazine 10-14-2016] On Sept. 23, 2016, the U.S. Air Force declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the QF-16, the unmanned configuration of the fourth generation F-16 fighter jet. Avionics Magazine recently caught up with Tim Bartlett, director of Off-Boeing platforms for Boeing Defense to discuss what type of avionics and structural modifications the F-16 goes through to achieve the unmanned configuration. 

The QF-16. Photo: U.S. Air Force. 
The QF-16 is a replacement for the previous QF-4 fleet, designed to serve as a full-scale aerial target for the purpose of testing newly developed weapons, technologies and tactics for the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Initial engineering, manufacturing and development of the QF-16 started under a March 2010 28-month, $72-million contract to convert six F-16s into the unmanned configuration. That was followed by a contract for 13 Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) jets in 2014, and two additional follow-on contracts in 2014 and 2015 worth a combined $56.2 million for 48 QF-16s. 
To convert retired F-16s into the unmanned configuration, the aircraft goes through an eight-cell, five-month process with the earliest stages focusing on component removals, structural changes, and installing about 3,000 new wires, which Bartlett refers to as "Drone Peculiar Equipment" (DPE). 
QF-16 Timeline
Click to enlarge.
Several avionics enhancements are made for the QF-16 configuration as well. 
"We add a flight control computer to enhance data processing within, which is a vital component to enable the unmanned capabilities. What we are doing, is inserting hardware that is ultimately designed to replace the pilots. A new autopilot helps with that as well, and there’s also some telemetry technology added that helps tell you where the aircraft is within the world, and the speed as well," Bartlett told Avionics Magazine
Boeing also notes that the modification enables a 120 nautical mile (nm) Gulf Range Drone Control System (GRDCS) data link capability. 
The QF-16 also receives peculiar support equipment with improved test and fault isolation, increased payloads power, a pre-wired payload discrete, as well as a universal replacement autopilot for improved navigation accuracy and Global Positioning System/Tactical Control System (GPS/TCS) growth path. 
Mission-wise, the QF-16 will not be used in combat, but rather for qualification of weapons and training for pilots. 
“It’s a full scale aerial target, you can imagine the adversaries that our Air Force flies against around the rest of the world, this aircraft is designed to be a threat representative for those adversaries. It is comparative to what our pilots will fly against, the [Air Force] uses them for two main missions, the first is to qualify and test their munitions and armaments. The second mission is around being threat representatives for our pilots gives them a better sense of what they’re flying against in an adversary and from a training perspective as well,” said Bartlett. 
The training and weapons qualification occurs within controlled airspace. Going forward, Boeing is contracted for a total of 97 aircraft under the previously mentioned Air Force awards.
The Air Force has not yet made any announcements around Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for the QF-16, although it is evaluating the capabilities for foreign partners, as well. The QF-16 will also be used to test the weapons and capabilities of the fifth generation F-35, which entered into service earlier this year. 

“Currently Boeing is on track to produce 97 total QF-16s with the Air Force. They also have a capability document that goes up to 210 aircraft into the future. Currently we have 18 jets that we’ve delivered of the 97 on contract, 17 are still flying today, one was shot down during the [Engineering and Manufacturing Development] EMD phase on purpose, as that’s part of the operational envelope that they use the aircraft for,” said Bartlett. 

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