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US Air Force Secretary to ride in AI-powered F-16

written by Daniel Croft | April 12, 2024

The X-62A Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft, or VISTA, flies over Palmdale, California, 26 August 2022. (US Air Force)

The Secretary of the US Air Force is to hitch a ride in an F-16 piloted solely by AI later this year.

Frank Kendall said there would also be a pilot in the cockpit alongside him but “hopefully” neither would be required to take control of the specially adapted aircraft.

The legendary F-16 first flew in 1976 and the US has alone taken delivery of more than 2,200 since its debut.

The surprise announcement marks an important stage in the US Air Force’s move towards drone and autonomous air warfare. The previously mentioned 2025 budget will allocate US$577 million for the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, the US’ program for the development of unmanned vehicles.

This is a significant increase from last year’s US$170 million, and from 2025 to 2029, the government is expecting to spend US$8.9 billion on the CCA program. These vehicles are expected to be operational by 2028.


Despite the large spend, unmanned vehicles are set to cost much less than their manned counterparts, with CCAs to cost between roughly US$20.6 million and US$27.5 million or “in the order of a quarter or a third” of what an F-35 currently costs (US$82.5 million).

This doesn’t mean these vehicles are expendable, but the losses of these vehicles have a lower operational impact.

It comes after Australian Aviation reported in February that the federal government would invest another $400 million into developing the AI-powered MQ-28A Ghost Bat.

Ghost Bat, first unveiled to the world in May 2020, is the first military aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in over 50 years.

It uses AI to help manned and unmanned aircraft in mid-air, hence its previous Australian project name, Loyal Wingman.

Boeing has partnered with the RAAF to create Ghost Bat, which measures 11.7 metres long, has a range of 2,000 nautical miles and can deliver fighter-like performance while also offering intelligence capabilities.

The drones are designed to leverage artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining a safe distance between other jets.

Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy said, “More than 200 Australian companies have already contributed to the MQ-28A program, including more than 50 small and medium enterprises within the supply chain.

“This project demonstrates that with the appropriate support from government, Australia’s defence industry can continue to be a world leader and a key source of jobs.”

Defence said the additional funding would secure more than 350 jobs, with more than 70 per cent of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat delivery program being directed towards Australian industry content.

Boeing also announced last month that work was now underway on the $550m facility at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport where the MQ-28 Ghost Bat would be built.

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