How exactly does this equipment convert the F-16 into an unmanned aircraft?

Is it possible to use this equipment on any other fighter (like the F/A-18 Hornet for example) in order to convert it into an unmanned aircraft?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Screw driver counts? $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Sep 18, 2015 at 18:06

3 Answers 3


THE USAF has had a program for converting manned aircraft into unmanned ones for decades. The aircraft used so far include,

  • QF- 104 (from F-104 Starfighter)
  • QF- 102 (from F-102 Delta Dagger)
  • QF- 100 (from F-100 Super Sabre)
  • QF- 106 (from F-106 Delta Dart)
  • QF- 4 (from F-4 Phantom II)

QF-16 and F-4

Note that both aircraft are piloted. According to fencecheck.com,

(QF-4s are)..almost always flown with a pilot aboard, unless a weapons launch will occur. Usually he does not touch the controls but stands ready to take over if ground control is lost or the aircraft departs. The pilots fly the aircraft themselves on chase missions and to maintain proficiency.

The QF-16 replaces the QF-4. The conversion of (retired) F-16 to QF-16 involves the following steps:

  • Removal of non essential items like the Vulcan cannon and the radar (in previous versions like QF-4, the radar was simply deactivated)
  • Modification of the FCS (Flight Control System) so that both manned and unmanned flights are possible (previous drones were remotely flown)
  • Installation of Flight termination system to destroy drone in case of flight path deviation, which results in this:

QF- 16 destroyed

Source: f-16.net

  • Installation of onboard telemetry systems to control the aircraft from the ground.
  • Installation of a scoring system to measure the missile success rate. This is required as most of the missiles are launched with dummy warheads or the flight path is programmed to evade the missiles, so that the costly aircraft could be reused. Only in a few cases are lethal missiles used.
  • The self protection suite (flares, chaffs etc.) are usually left on the aircraft to provide a realistic engagement scenario.
  • New paint job :), which looks like this:

QF- 16

Source: www.wired.com

It is possible to convert (any) other aircraft into drones. For fly by wire aircraft like F/A-18, only the software portion will change, but it is a minor thing.

  • $\begingroup$ @ aeroalias So, will the unmanned F 16 be able to fire any missiles or drop bombs? $\endgroup$
    – CSinha
    Sep 19, 2015 at 18:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @CSinha No. I don't think that anyone would want their 'target' shooting back at them :) $\endgroup$
    – aeroalias
    Sep 19, 2015 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ Just FYI but this idea predates even the jet-age era aircraft you mentioned. I'm not sure if Operation Aphrodite, which turned older B-17's into one-way flying bombs, was the first instance of manned/unmanned conversion, as this tactic has also been used for ground-to-air target practice vehicles. With Aphrodite, the two man crew would take off in the aircraft, then parachute to safety, and then the plane was RC controlled from a "mothership". The concept was ultimately a failure, although certainly ambitious and ahead of its time. $\endgroup$
    – elrobis
    Sep 21, 2015 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @elrobis I've read about that operation. I think they even modified some aircraft. Also, it was for bombing and not for target practice. As you said, it was way ahead of its time and most of the aircraft didn't even reach the targets. $\endgroup$
    – aeroalias
    Sep 21, 2015 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ @elrobis those aircraft were not intended to return to base, they were effectively primitive cruise missiles. Not just the Americans tried it, the Germans also did using the Mistel program. While not in itself a success, it did provide valuable experience for developing the first purpose built guided weapons. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 15, 2017 at 7:22

I doubt it would be possible to give you a detailed and specific answer to this question (with a components list and such) - the US government and military contractors generally don't divulge complete plans and schematics for aircraft/modifications in active service.

In basic theory however, I can tell you that the F-16 is a fly-by-wire aircraft. Much like an Airbus aircraft, all flight controls are actually manipulated by the on-board computers, and the pilot is just telling the computer what they would like the plane to do.

Because it's a fly-by-wire aircraft all that's really needed to turn it into an unmanned aircraft is to change the source of the "pilot input" from a control stick and throttle handle to a radio receiver that's getting commands from the ground, effectively turning it into the world's most expensive RC aircraft. Presumably there are also failsafes in the event the control uplink is lost, and at least some basic security protocols to prevent someone else from sending commands to the system.

In the case of the QF-16 (which is designed to serve as a target drone for aerial combat training) not much more needs to go into the design - it doesn't need extensive fire control capability for example. It also gets some other features added which are designed to aid in scoring training exercises (determining the accuracy of the aircraft attacking the target drone).
If it were to go into a combat role it would require those features as well, and probably substantially more work in securing the control uplink so an enemy can't disrupt (or worse, hijack) control of the aircraft.

As to what would have to go into another aircraft to make it unmanned, that depends on the aircraft. Obviously the control uplink has to be installed so you can communicate with it from the ground. Control system modifications may be required as well, particularly if the aircraft is not "fly-by-wire" computer-controlled (the QF-4, which was the QF-16's immediate predecessor based on the F-4 phantom, likely required servos to operate the throttle and other flight controls).


Check out this article from Flightglobal on the Loyal Wingman program:


It looks like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are in a position to provide a drop-in solution whereby you swap out a couple of LRUs (Line-Replaceable Units) and bang! You turned your aging manned combat platforms into an unmanned expanded magazine for your manned platforms. The QF-16 costs just over $1,000,000 for the conversion.

Given the size of legacy F-16 and F/A-18 fleets this seems like a practical solution for countries with constrained military budgets.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question. The question asks specifically about the QF-16, which is an unmanned target drone. The link is related, but appears to be about a modification to convert the F-16 into an unmanned weapons platform, a platform distinct from the QF-16. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    May 15, 2017 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review $\endgroup$
    – J W
    May 15, 2017 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ Hey thanks for the tips! I'm new here and I definitely don't want to de-clarify anything. I will pay closer attention to the scope of the questions being asked. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2017 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ No problem! This site does take some time to get used to. It is a bit different than many other forums or Q&A sites in that we really look for precision in asking and answering what is asked. Get to know the guidelines and enjoy what the site has to offer! $\endgroup$
    – J W
    May 20, 2017 at 0:35

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