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Unmanned Drones in Military Training: The Future of Target Practice and Live Fire Tests


The realm of military aviation has evolved dramatically in recent years, and with it, the training methodologies used to prepare the pilots of today and tomorrow. A significant advancement in pilot training involves the integration of unmanned drones for target practice and live-fire tests. This innovative approach not only enhances the effectiveness of military training but also reduces risks and costs associated with traditional training methods. In this article, we’ll explore the evolving landscape of military training, the role of unmanned drones, and the numerous advantages they bring to the world of aviation education.

Unmanned Drones: A Game-Changer in Military Training

Traditional pilot training typically involved the use of target aircraft, such as old or decommissioned fighter jets. These aircraft, also known as target drones, served as adversaries for pilot trainees during simulated combat exercises. However, the deployment of unmanned drones has revolutionized this aspect of military training. These drones, often referred to as “remotely piloted aircraft” or RPAs, play a crucial role in modern military aviation training programs.

Cost-Efficiency and Sustainability

One of the most significant advantages of using unmanned drones for target practice and live-fire tests is cost-efficiency. Traditional target aircraft are not only expensive to maintain but also involve substantial operational costs, including pilot salaries and safety measures. In contrast, unmanned drones are far more cost-effective, as they eliminate the need for human pilots and can be reused multiple times. This cost-saving element allows military forces to allocate their budgets more efficiently and sustainably, focusing resources on other critical areas.

Realistic Combat Scenarios

Unmanned drones are designed to mimic real aircraft, both in terms of appearance and performance. This enables trainee pilots to engage in more realistic combat scenarios, helping them adapt to high-pressure situations. These drones can be programmed to execute complex flight patterns and simulate various tactical situations, thereby offering a training experience that closely replicates actual combat scenarios.

Safety and Risk Reduction

The use of unmanned drones in training significantly reduces the risks associated with traditional target practice and live-fire tests. Human pilot involvement in such exercises carries inherent dangers, but unmanned drones can be controlled remotely, minimizing the potential for accidents. Additionally, drones can simulate different threat levels and are equipped with safety features to ensure controlled and secure training environments.

Performance and Data Analysis

Modern unmanned drones are equipped with advanced technology that allows them to provide comprehensive performance data. This data can be invaluable for post-training analysis, helping instructors assess trainee performance, identify areas for improvement, and tailor training programs accordingly. This level of performance and data analysis is simply not achievable through traditional methods.

Multi-Purpose Utility

Unmanned drones in military training offer a level of versatility that traditional target aircraft cannot match. Beyond target practice, these drones can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence-gathering missions. This multi-purpose utility further justifies their integration into military training programs.

Boeing’s QF-16 Program: Transforming Fighter Jets into Cutting-Edge Target Drones

The U.S. military has a rich history of using converted fighter jets as target drones, a practice dating back to the 1960s. Iconic aircraft like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, F-100, F-102, F-106, and F-4 have all served as platforms for testing sophisticated missiles and electronic warfare systems.

Fast forward to the present, and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is entrusting Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis with the ambitious task of converting an additional 30 F-16 fighters into QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Targets (FSATs).

These retired fighter jets, reincarnated as target drones, play a pivotal role in weapons testing. While some may meet their end in the line of duty, others rely on onboard sensors to calculate missile detonation points, allowing them to record “kills” without self-destruction.

Boeing has reached a significant milestone in its QF-16 program, a transformative initiative focused on converting retired F-16 fighter jets into cutting-edge unmanned aerial target drones. To date, Boeing has successfully converted 15 F-16s and delivered them to the U.S. Air Force, with the remaining three slated for conversion and delivery by the end of 2023.

This program holds paramount importance in the Air Force’s continuous efforts to modernize its training and testing capabilities. The QF-16s are poised to play a pivotal role in pilot training, enabling them to simulate the engagement of enemy aircraft and facilitating the rigorous testing of new weapons systems.

The QF-16s boast an array of advanced features that enhance their functionality:

  1. Autonomous Flight: These drones are equipped with a state-of-the-art autopilot system that grants them the capability to fly autonomously.
  2. Safety Measures: A cutting-edge flight termination system is incorporated to ensure safety, enabling the drones to be destroyed in the event they go out of control.
  3. Assessment of Missile Accuracy: The inclusion of a new scoring system allows for the meticulous tracking of the accuracy of air-to-air missiles fired at the QF-16 drones.
  4. Data Collection: Multiple sensors and cameras are integrated into the QF-16s, facilitating comprehensive data collection on the performance of the drones and the effectiveness of the weapons systems under scrutiny.

The QF-16 program has undoubtedly excelled, with these drones demonstrating remarkable performance during testing and being actively deployed in various training exercises. These QF-16 target drones are expected to remain a valuable asset to the U.S. Air Force for years to come.

Notably, Boeing is not limiting the reach of its innovative QF-16 program to domestic borders alone. The company has also extended its offerings to international partners, having successfully sold QF-16s to countries such as Australia and Singapore, further enhancing their defense capabilities.

This program stands as a significant achievement for Boeing and the broader aerospace industry. It serves as a testament to Boeing’s prowess in developing and producing innovative products that precisely cater to the evolving needs of its customers. More than that, the QF-16 program plays an indispensable role in ensuring the readiness and capabilities of the U.S. Air Force, further solidifying Boeing’s commitment to advancing defense technologies.

A New Lease on Life: QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Targets




Boeing’s Remarkable Retrofit

Boeing took the concept of retrofitting retired F-16 fighters to new heights. In 2013, they equipped several of these aircraft with cutting-edge technology, enabling them to be remotely piloted without the need for human onboard control. Collaborating closely with the U.S. Air Force, Boeing conducted a test flight that left aviation enthusiasts and experts astounded.

During this remarkable test flight, controlled remotely by two U.S. Air Force pilots situated at a ground control facility, the QF-16 reached an altitude of 40,000 feet and achieved speeds of Mach 1.47. It flawlessly executed complex maneuvers, including barrel rolls and the challenging “split S” maneuver. This test flight demonstrated not only the QF-16’s advanced capabilities but also its potential for human-like aerial feats.

A Game-Changer for Aerial Testing

One of the primary advantages of these remotely piloted target drones is the ability to subject them to extreme conditions without risking human lives. While the test flight involved a mere 7Gs of acceleration, these fly-by-wire QF-16s have the potential to perform maneuvers at up to 9Gs, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in aerial testing.

Boeing also installs a flight termination system that can destroy the drone if it goes out of control, command telemetry systems so the drone can be controlled from the ground, a scoring system to gauge the accuracy of air-to-air missiles fired at the drone, as well as avionics packages to enable these plans to fly unmanned.

A Bright Future for Aerial Testing

Boeing’s remarkable success in converting retired F-16 fighters into QF-16 target drones has opened a new chapter in the world of military aviation testing. These versatile drones serve as essential tools in pilot training, target practice, and live-fire tests, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the field. As we look to the future, innovations like the QF-16 promise to continue reshaping the landscape of aerial warfare testing, ensuring that the U.S. military remains at the forefront of technological advancement.

USAF and DOD Unleash Cutting-Edge Target Drones to Simulate 5th-Gen Threats

In the ever-evolving landscape of military aviation, staying one step ahead of adversaries is crucial for maintaining superiority. Recently, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) and the Army have revived an exciting initiative: the development of cutting-edge target drones designed to mimic the capabilities of advanced adversary aircraft. This endeavor aims to enhance the training of American military forces and inject new life into the Air Force’s ambitious “Next Generation Aerial Target” (NGAT) program. In this article, we delve into the fascinating world of these 5th Generation Aerial Targets (5GATs), exploring their significance, setbacks, and what the future holds for these remarkable unmanned aircraft.

5GAT: A Promising Initiative

The 5GAT initiative took flight in 2017 when Sierra Technical Services was awarded the initial contract. Its primary objective was to create an unmanned aircraft that could replicate the capabilities of advanced adversary aircraft. By 2020, the stealthy prototype was ready for its maiden flight. However, this inaugural flight ended in a crash, leading to a reevaluation of the project. The Army issued a second solicitation to the industry in April 2022, and this project went dark until the recent contract announcement in August 2023.

The Air Force’s Next Generation Aerial Target (NGAT) Program

Simultaneously, the U.S. Air Force was launching its NGAT program, seeking ways to field unmanned, autonomous systems capable of simulating threats posed by fifth-generation fighters, such as China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57. The NGAT program evolved, adding new elements to its requirements, including the need for target drones to fly at supersonic speeds. The Air Force even explored the possibility of private companies owning and operating these target drones, much like the “red” air aggressors. However, the NGAT program has made little progress since its inception, remaining in the pre-acquisition phase.

The Synergy Between 5GAT and NGAT

Interestingly, the 5GAT program appears to have some synergy with the NGAT program. The Test Resources Management Center, in coordination with the Air Force, emphasized that the 5GAT program is a “technology pathfinder for the future Next Generation Aerial Target.” While both programs are distinct, the advancements made through 5GAT will contribute to NGAT’s development. It’s essential to understand that the 5GAT program does not replace the NGAT but complements it.

Sierra Technical Services: Resurrecting a Promising Design

Returning to Sierra Technical Services for the 5GAT program is a testament to the confidence in the original aircraft configuration and design, despite the 2020 crash. If the aircraft’s efficiency and affordability are validated, the DOD anticipates a follow-on production contract. It is entirely possible that the project could be transitioned directly to individual service branches for further integration and eventual production.

New Entrants in the Arena

The pursuit of advanced target drones has also attracted other players to the field. The Air Force Research Laboratory awarded a contract to Blue Force Technologies to develop the “Fury,” a high-performance drone for adversary air training missions. Anduril, a defense software contractor, recently acquired Blue Force Technologies and pledged significant investments in the Fury program, including enhancing its autonomous capabilities.


The integration of unmanned drones in military aviation training represents a pivotal advancement in the field. It provides a cost-effective, realistic, and safe means of preparing the next generation of pilots for the challenges they may face in real combat situations. As technology continues to evolve, the role of unmanned drones in military training will likely expand, solidifying their place as indispensable tools in shaping the future of aviation.






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