For many years the U.S. Air Force has operated a fleet of surplus Phantom IIs as QF-4s in the full-scale aerial target role (FSAT). Under projected usage rates, that fleet will be consumed within the next few years. Now, the Air Force has taken the first step to providing a replacement. Not surprisingly, the type chosen is the Lockheed Martin F-16, the older variants of which are entering the boneyard in some numbers.
In March, Boeing was awarded a $69.7 million contract for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase for the QF-16 FSAT program. The contracting office is the 691st Armament Systems Squadron based at Eglin AFB, Fla. Boeing will undertake design and development work in St. Louis, but flight testing and production will take place at the former U.S. Navy base at Cecil Field, near Jacksonville.
Part of the Boeing QF-16 team is BAE Systems, which was prime contractor for the QF-4 FSAT program, of which around 240 conversions were undertaken. Initial plans for the QF-16 cover up to 126 modifications, with the first due for delivery in 2014. They will be capable of operations both with and without a pilot. Compared with the Phantom-based drones, the QF-16s will provide aerial targets whose maneuverability and performance are more representative of current combat aircraft, in turn providing a more realistic foe for air-to-air missile tests. QF-4s are currently flown by the 82nd ATRS from Tyndall AFB in Florida for trials over the Gulf of Mexico, and from Holloman AFB in New Mexico for operations over the White Sands missile range.