US flies first unmanned F-16 drone in test flight
Air force says the aim is to use the converted jet as a target for training fighter pilots
The US air force has test flown an F-16 fighter jet without a pilot on board for the first time in the latest sign of the military's increasing reliance on drones.
The robotic F-16 flew for 55 minutes with an empty cockpit from a Florida base last week as part of a programme that would see the converted fighter jet used as a target for pilots in training, manufacturer Boeing said.
"It was really amazing to see an F-16 take off with nobody in it," said Michelle Shelhamer from Boeing, which has adapted the plane for the US military.
The aircraft is one of six "retired" F-16 jets that would be used as aerial targets for fighter pilots training for air-to-air combat, she said.
"They're basically built to be shot down," she said. "It's full-scale, real world, real life, combat training - not with a simulator or anything else."
During the flight out of Tyndall air force base in Florida, the renamed QF-16 reached an altitude of nearly 12,200 metres and flew at supersonic speeds, according to Shelhamer.
There was no pilot on board to experience gravitational forces as the plane performed manoeuvres, including a barrel roll.
The plane was operated by two test pilots from a ground control station and the flight went off without a hitch, officials said.
It is not the first time the air force has adapted old fighters as drones for use in air-to-air combat training. Since 1997, the Pentagon used more than 80 F-4 Phantoms converted into robotic planes for targets.
But the F-16s offered a faster, "more realistic" training target than the slower F-4s, Tyndall spokesman Herman Bell said.
The air force, however, said the F-16 drones would only be used for target practice and not added to the growing fleet of unmanned aircraft.
"I can tell you that there are no plans to use these aircraft as a combat asset," Master Sergeant Randy Redman said.
"This is just the next step in the evolution of the training programme to ensure that our pilots remain the best in the world."
A leading expert on robotic technology in warfare, Peter Singer, said the conversion of the F-16s did not represent a breakthrough, as F-4s had been adapted in a similar way more than a decade ago.
"It's not fundamentally different than converting past generations of fighters," Singer said.
But he said the test flight offered a reminder of how robotic technology was spreading rapidly through the US military and other countries' armed forces.
The pilotless F-16 took to the air amid an internal debate inside the air force over the future role of drones, with some commanders sceptical of the utility of the unmanned planes against adversaries with strong air defences.