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USAF secretary Kendall plans to ride in AI-operated F-16 for a Sneak Peek on CCA Technology

April 12, 2024 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The US Air Force is rapidly scaling up its plans to automate some of its fleet, and the US Air Force secretary says he's planning to fly in one of the autonomously piloted F-16s this spring.

The Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft (VISTA) flies in the skies over Edwards AFB, shortly after receiving its new paint scheme in early 2019. The aircraft was resdesignated from NF-16D to the X-62A on June 14th, 2021. [USAF photo by Christian Turner]

Last week the USAF delivered the first three of six F-16s to Eglin Air Force Base, for conversion to full AI control as part of the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model (VENOM) autonomous flight testbed program. Once transformed, the F-16s will still have pilots in the cockpit to engage in real-time autonomy, retaining control over specific algorithms during test flights.

Speaking on Tuesday at a defense meeting of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reported the program was making strong progress and said that he will take a backseat ride in one of the aircraft – with some backup, of course.

"I'm going to take a ride in an autonomously flown F-16 later this year," Kendall stated. "There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works, and hopefully, neither he nor I will be needed to fly the airplane."

The research arm of the military, DARPA, has worked on this for over five years.

To be clear, the upcoming conflict involving the US will not feature autonomous F-16s. The aircraft solely serve as a testbed for software development aimed at future drones. That the software is quite advanced has already been demonstrated four years ago, when an AI model outperformed Air Force pilots in an F-16 flight simulator with a score of 5-0.

"It's important to understand the 'human-on-the-loop' aspect of this type of testing, meaning that a pilot will be involved in the autonomy in real time and maintain the ability to start and stop specific algorithms," explained lieutenant colonel Joe Gagnon, commander of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. "There will never be a time where the VENOM aircraft will solely 'fly by itself' without a human component."

The end goal is what the Air Force calls the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), a project which is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the Air Force. The drones will be designed to deploy alongside human-piloted jets and provide cover for them, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities, or act as scouts or even communications hubs.