F-16 jets to be modified in self-flying planes

The 96th Test Wing and 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) received the first three F-16 Fighting Falcon jets ready to take part in the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model – Autonomy Flying Testbed program (VENOM-AFT).

As told by Capt. Lindsey Brewer & Samuel King Jr. in the article F-16s arrive to be modified for autonomous testing, VENOM-AFT is designed and funded to accelerate testing of autonomy software on crewed and uncrewed aircraft. VENOM-AFT complements the Autonomy Data and AI Experimentation proving ground at Eglin and informs the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program and other autonomy developers.

The next step for the VENOM program is to modify the F-16 aircraft into test platforms to rapidly evaluate autonomous capabilities.

“The VENOM program marks a pivotal chapter in the advancement of aerial combat capabilities. This transformative program holds the potential to redefine air combat paradigms by fostering novel autonomous functions for current and future crewed and uncrewed platforms,” said Maj. Ross Elder, VENOM developmental test lead. “We look forward to the culmination of years of engineering and collaboration, as VENOM leads a measured step towards a new age of aviation.”

Three F-16 jets arrive at Eglin AFB to be modified in self-flying planes to test CCA drone wingman concept
The 96th Test Wing and 53rd Wing welcomed the first three F-16 Fighting Falcons ready to take part in the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model – Autonomy Flying Testbed program also known as VENOM. 

Pilots will be in the cockpit

Similar to F-16 and F-15 testing at Eglin, the VENOM program will undergo developmental and operational testing via the 40th Flight Test Squadron and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

During these tests, the pilots will be in the cockpit to monitor the autonomy and ensures flight and mission systems test objectives are me.

Operators will provide feedback during modeling, simulation, and post-flight to the autonomy developers to improve performance over time and ensure the autonomy is making the appropriate decisions prior to and during flight.

The goal of the VENOM program is to enable the Air Force to rapidly iterate and expand the body of knowledge for potential autonomy and payload solutions.

“With regards to VENOM-AFT, rapid tactical autonomy development focuses on ‘speed-to-ramp,’ meaning, go as fast as you can, safely, to ensure we get CCA flying as quickly as possible,” said Lt. Col. Joe Gagnon, 85th TES commander.

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F-16 to be modified in self-flying planes to test CCA drone wingman concept

As already reported, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Mar. 7, 2023 that the USAF will field 200 NGAD aircraft and notionally 1,000 CCAs.

Kendall explained that the next generation of air dominance will include both the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter platform “and the introduction of uncrewed collaborative aircraft to provide affordable mass and dramatically increased cost effectiveness.”

Kendall explained that the “notional” 1,000 CCA figure was derived from “an assumed two CCAs for 200 NGAD platforms, and an additional two for each of 300 F-35s.”

But, as reported by Defense News, before the US Air Force can fly CCAs into combat, airmen need to be confident the autonomous software operating the drones will work properly, Brig. Gen. Dale White, the service’s program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said last year.

Hence the F-16s to be modified in self-flying planes under program VENOM-AFT.

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Photo credit: David Shelikoff / U.S. Air Force