Coming Soon: Autonomous F-16 Fighting Falcons?

F-16 Fighting Falcon
April 3, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-16F-16 Fighting FalconU.S. Air ForceAir ForceNGAD

Coming Soon: Autonomous F-16 Fighting Falcons?

The U.S. Air Force is advancing its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program by integrating autonomous capabilities into older F-16 Fighting Falcons as part of the VENOM-AFT program.

Summary: The U.S. Air Force is advancing its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program by integrating autonomous capabilities into older F-16 Fighting Falcons as part of the VENOM-AFT program at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This initiative aims to explore autonomy in crewed and uncrewed aircraft, potentially revolutionizing future air combat by developing autonomous "loyal wingmen." While not intending to convert the entire fleet to autonomous fighters, these tests signify a step towards incorporating artificial intelligence in support of manned missions, aligning with broader efforts to enhance combat strategies with autonomous technologies.

The F-16 Is Getting a Big Upgrade

The United States Air Force's highly-touted Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is now developing a system of systems that could include an optionally-manned sixth-generation fighter along with unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that could act as "loyal wingmen" to support a variety of missions. However, the first U.S. self-flying fighter might not be the future sixth-generation aircraft – but rather could be an aircraft that made its maiden flight five decades ago.

The U.S. Air Force is now testing how the fourth-generation F-16 Fighting Falcon could be employed as an autonomous fighter.

On Tuesday, Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Florida, announced that three Fighting Falcons are being employed by the 96th Test Wing and 53rd Wing as part of the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model – Autonomy Flying Testbed (VENOM-AFT) program.

The program was designed and funded to accelerate testing of autonomy software on crewed and uncrewed aircraft, while VENOM-AFT will complement the Autonomy Data and AI Experimentation proving ground at Eglin with the research shared with the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program and other autonomy developers.

The three F-16 aircraft are now being modified into test platforms to rapidly evaluate autonomous capabilities.

"The VENOM program marks a pivotal chapter in the advancement of aerial combat capabilities. This transformative program holds the potential to redefine air combat paradigms by fostering novel autonomous functions for current and future crewed and uncrewed platforms," explained Maj. Ross Elder, VENOM developmental test lead. "We look forward to the culmination of years of engineering and collaboration, as VENOM leads a measured step towards a new age of aviation."

The efforts will be similar to other F-16 and even F-15 Eagle testing that is conducted at Eglin, with the VENOM program undergoing developmental and operational testing via the 40th Flight Test Squadron and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

"Having both DT and OT pilots working and flying from the same location allows for daily collaboration and reduces the stove piping of knowledge and lessons learned," said Lt. Col. Jeremy Castor, VENOM operational test lead.

Pilots Will be in the Cockpits

The testing will be similar to that of self-driving cars – meaning that a human operator will be present at all times. In this case, during the tests, a pilot will be in the cockpit, but not just along for the ride. The human operator will be present to monitor the autonomy and ensure flight and mission systems test objectives are met, and if necessary to take over if there are any problems.

"It's important to understand the 'human-on-the-loop' aspect of this type of testing, meaning that a pilot will be involved in the autonomy in real time and maintain the ability to start and stop specific algorithms," said Lt. Col. Joe Gagnon, 85th TES commander. "There will never be a time where the VENOM aircraft will solely 'fly by itself' without a human component."

The human pilot will also provide feedback during modeling, simulation, and post-flight to the autonomy developers to improve performance over time and ensure the autonomy is making the appropriate decisions before and during flight.

A Fleet of Self-Flying F-16 Fighting Falcons

The Air Force isn't going to convert its fleet of Fighting Falcons into autonomous warbirds, rather the goal of the VENOM program is to enable the Air Force to rapidly iterate and expand the body of knowledge for potential autonomy and payload solutions.

"With regards to VENOM-AFT, rapid tactical autonomy development focuses on 'speed-to-ramp,' meaning, go as fast as you can, safely, to ensure we get CCA flying as quickly as possible," added Gagnon.

As DefenseNews reported, the air service is heavily focusing on creating a fleet of at least 1,000 CCAs, which could employ autonomous capabilities to fly alongside aircraft such as the F-35 or future NGAD family of fighter systems.

Other Autonomous Efforts With the F-16

This is just the latest autonomous-based program involving an F-16. Tests have been underway for several years, looking into how artificial intelligence (AI) could aid a human operator in future manned aircraft.

It was a year ago that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced AI algorithms developed as part of its Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program had advanced significantly from controlling a simulated F-16 Fighting Falcon in an aerial dogfight on a computer screen to controlling an actual F-16 in flight.

A highly modified F-16 – known as the X-62A or VISTA (Variable In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft) – successfully flew for more than 17 hours in early December 2022 at the Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards AFB, California. Throughout multiple flights conducted over several days, the tests demonstrated how AI agents can control a full-scale fighter jet.

The ACE program isn't seeking to develop an autonomous fighter, but instead looked into how AI could help allow the human pilot to focus on large battle management tasks while the AI acted as a virtual co-pilot.

Author Experience and Expertise: Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu. You can email the author: [email protected].