Key point: Starting in 2015, the Air Force began working on computer code that quickly can transform the QF-16 into a robotic wingman for manned fighters such as the F-35.
The U.S. Air Force soon could deploy a radar-evading target drone. One that easily could evolve into a front-line warplane.
California-based Sierra Technical revealed its prototype drone in photos the company released in mid-January 2020.
The Fifth-Generation Aerial Target, or 5GAT, is roughly the size of a T-38 training jet and like the T-38 boasts two J85 engines. The prototype with its sharp angles bears a passing resemblance to an F-22 stealth fighter, albeit one without a cockpit.
The company plans to fly the drone for the first time in early 2020. The Air Force wants the 5GAT drone for target practice in order to help fighter pilots prepare for dogfights with Russian and Chinese stealth fighters.
The drone’s development is part of a wider Air Force effort to provide realistic training to its pilots for doing battle with the latest radar-evading warplanes. The service also plans to organize some of its F-35 stealth fighters into an “adversary” squadron that would play the role of the enemy during realistic war games.
As a bonus, with a few changes, the 5GAT could be so much more than a mere target.
The U.S. military uses a variety of drones as targets in live-fire exercises. The Pentagon also has deployed drones in combat in order to distract enemy air-defenses, most notably during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Navy drones dropped radar-foiling chaff.