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How Boeing is transforming F-16 fighter jets into DRONES after stark warning US is losing arms race to China and Russia

BOEING is working on a new $49.7million deal with the US Air Force to convert retired F-16 fighter jets into unmanned target drones after a stark warning the US is falling behind China and Russia in the arms race.

The contract was awarded to the Boeing Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis to work on the conversion of 15 F-16 fighters into unmanned QF-16 full-scale aerial targets, according to reports.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida has placed the order with the aviation giant for the retired fighter jets to replace the current fleet of QF-4 target drones.

It was announced by the Department of Defense on November 23 and is an extension of the previous contract awarded to Boeing.

According to MIlitary Aerospace, it involves F-16 Block 25 and Block 30 manned aircraft which will all become unmanned aerial vehicles.

For decades, the Air Force has converted retired fighter jets into drones to give the machinery a second life.

It first began in the 1960s when 24 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jets were converted into target drones, Military Aerospace reports.

The F-100, F-102, F-106, and F-4 have all also become target drones.

Target drones are used to test missiles and electronic warfare systems, meaning that after conversion, some are destroyed during weapons tests.

However, many are fitted with an onboard sensor to calculate a missile detonation without the jet itself being hit or "killed."

Boeing and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center signed the first contract for the conversion of F-16s into QF-16 drones in 2010.

The retired aircraft can be converted to fly unmanned or with a human pilot, Military Aerospace explains, with the unmanned planes flying a preset route.

The introduction of these jets, in particular, is expected to take unmanned drones to the next level.

The original F-16 had already been the first aircraft to have an onboard computer to help the pilot when it was introduced in the 1970s.

The first manned QF-16 flight took place in May 2012 while the first unmanned flight was in September 2013.

All jets are stripped down of any unnecessary parts such as the 20-millimeter cannon and APG-66/68 radar. 


When the jets are converted into unmanned drones, Boeing also installs a flight termination system so that it can be destroyed if control is lost.

They are also fitted with a command telemetry system to control the drone from the ground and a scoring system to adjudicate the accuracy of the missiles targeting it during weapons testing.

According to Wired, 32 of the unmanned QF-16s were used this year in weapons testing over the Gulf of Mexico.

The aircraft had all formerly been rescued from the "boneyard" at an Arizona Air Force base.

It's believed that the QF-16s could transform aerial combat in the future.

The aircraft could be used to fly decoy routes to distract from other manned aircraft flying in stealth mode.

It has also been likened to Star War's R2-D2 as a co-pilot by Will Roper, who oversees the Air Force’s research and development arm.


It comes after an expert warned the US is in danger of losing the so-called drone wars as rivals such as China and Russia are developing new weapons and beefing up their arsenal.

Author Seth J Frantzman told The Sun that the US was “privileged” after the Cold War but warned that Beijing is threatening to challenge its status as a drone superpower.

China’s military spending has skyrocketed from around 41.2bn in 2000 to $245bn in 2020, according to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

Beijing has already plowed $1trillion into its military this year as President Xi aims to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, according to a Pentagon report published last year.

Frantzman previously told The Sun that Beijing could use drones in a military setting - having already used unmanned technology as a "commercial tool" to entertain crowds at light shows.


Chinese officials are "pouring resources" into drone swarm technology - where machines are networked using artificial intelligence.

This is where robots work together as they try to destroy identified targets.

Frantzman warned that this type of technology is “dangerous” as it could threaten to overwhelm air defenses.

But, drones that are commonly used in swarm attacks do not have a long-range meaning it's unlikely they would reach potential targets such as Hawaii or the US mainland.

Frantzman warned that the US is in danger of losing the “drone wars”, depending on how it wants to invest in unmanned technology.

The Air Force reportedly plans to buy 210 QF-16 by the end of 2022.

The work for the current Boeing project will take place in St Louis and is expected to be finished in April 2025.

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