US Air Force secretary so confident in AI-controlled F-16s, he'll fly in one

With a pilot as backup of course – VENOM is still emerging tech

The US Air Force is rapidly scaling up its plans to automate some of its fleet, and the civilian boss of the service says he's planning to fly in one of the robo-planes this northern spring.

Last week the USAF delivered three F-16 fighters to Eglin Air Force Base, for conversion to full AI control as part of the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model (VENOM) autonomous test bed program.

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 that he will be a test non-pilot 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 testified. "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."

Kendall praised the progress of the Air Force's automation program, of which VENOM is a part. The research arm of the military, DARPA, has worked on this for over five years, and in 2023 the Air Force asked for around $6 billionto build a fleet of advanced drones after demonstrating that an F-16 could fly using software alone.

To be clear, the next conflict involving the US won't see autonomous F-16s in action. They are purely a testbed for developing software for the next generation of drones. And the software's already pretty good – four years ago an AI model beat Air Force pilots 5-0 in an F-16 flight simulator. Real-life Mavericks (yes, we know he's Navy) may be heading for extinction, but not today.

"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."


Relax pilot, you still have a job – Click to enlarge. Source: USAF/David Shelikoff

The end goal is what the Air Force calls "Collaborative Combat Aircraft" – aka your drone buddy who's fun to fly with. The USAF envisages a future in which fighters and bombers can fly with AI-powered sentry drones that can handle enemies, relay communications, and run interference to a target.

It's an idea whose time has come – at least in military minds. The UK had its Project Mosquito drones until the project was canceled and replaced with a cheaper solution, and Australia is trialing Boeing's MQ-28 Ghost Bat for use in the skies Down Under. China is developing a "loyal wingman" drone that seems well advanced, and is causing Kendall concern.

"The Department of the Air Force is in a race for technological superiority against a well-resourced strategic competitor," he argued [PDF] regarding China in the Senate hearings.

"The United States is now facing a competitor with national purchasing power that exceeds our own – a challenge we have never faced in modern times. The PLA is actively developing and expanding capabilities to challenge strategic stability, attack our critical space systems, and defeat our ability to project power – especially air power." ®

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