Title: F-16 Unihabited Air Combat Vehicles

Subject: Arguments for modifying current F-16Cs to perform both manned and unmanned combat missions

Author(s): Kenneth E. Thompson, Jr.; William C. Watkins (Faculty Advisor)


Abstract: The U.S. Air Force is actively pursuing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs for surveillance and reconnaisance missions. However, the Air Force has not funded any substantial research into bomb or missile carrying "lethal" UAVs, also called uninhabited combat air vehicles (UCAVs), despite the recommendations of the USAF scientific board's New World Vistas, DARPA, and the Air Force 2025 project. With budget constraints and a reluctance to transition to an unmanned combat force, new advanced technology UCAVs are decades from operational status.

In the meantime, the U.S. needs to quickly field an interim UCAV program for political, economic and military reasons. An interim UCAV will provide another unmanned military option for U.S. leadership that currently relies on cruise missiles to deal with conflicts where the loss of American lives is politically unacceptable. Economically, a reusable UCAV is more cost effective in the long run than a one shot million dollar plus cruise missile. Militarily, cruise missiles have ordnance and target limitations that are overcome by the variety of weapons employed by a UCAV and its "man in the loop" capability. An interim UCAV is needed now to provide U.S. leadership with another unmanned military option.

By modifying the multi-role F-16 fighter into an unmanned aircraft, the USAF can quickly provide a cost effective interim UCAV. Lockheed Martin has suggested the modification of "boneyard" non-flying F-16 A-models into UCAVs. An investigation of this idea yielded several limitations and concerns that led to the formulation of an alternative F-16 UCAV proposal.

Many of the limitations, concerns and costs associated with the Lockheed Martin F-16A proposal are eliminated or reduced by modifying currently flying block 40 and 50 F-16Cs in operational squadrons. With the addition of remote control equipment, a few squadron jets are converted into "dual role" aircraft. The selected dual role F-16Cs can continue to fly as normal "manned" aircraft or, if needed, as unmanned remotely piloted UCAVs. Converting a few block 40 LANTIRN laser targeting pod equipped and block 50 HARM targeting system equipped F-16Cs in operational squadrons to dual role UCAVs will quickly provide a cost effective and capable interim unmanned military option.

With low modification costs, no new infrastructure requirements, and no need for additional pilots or support personnel, the USAF should immediately start the development, testing and conversion of a few F-16Cs into dual role UCAVs. As an interim unmanned military option, the F-16C UCAV will provide valuable insights and lessons for future advanced technology UCAV development and operations. In addition, a successful interim F-16C UCAV program will help the psychological transition to unmanned combat aircraft operations for the "white scarf" Air Force.

Last updated 1999 Jan 27