US Military Conducts First Test Flight of F-16 Fighter Jet Piloted by AI

An experimental orange-and-white F-16 fighter jet piloted by artificial intelligence (AI) rather than a pilot was given a ride by 75-year-old US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall this week

by Sededin Dedovic
US Military Conducts First Test Flight of F-16 Fighter Jet Piloted by AI
© Associated Press / YOutube channel

An experimental orange-and-white F-16 fighter jet controlled by artificial intelligence (AI), not a pilot, took 75-year-old U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall for a ride this week as reported by Assosiated Press.

AI represents one of the biggest advancements in military aviation since the introduction of radar-evading "stealth" technology in the early 1990s, which the Air Force relied on. Although AI technology is not fully developed, plans are in place for a fleet of over 1,000 unmanned combat aircraft, with the first expected to be operational by 2028.

The air combat simulation this week was held at Edwards Air Force Base—a vast desert facility where Chuck Yeager (1923-2020) broke the sound barrier in 1947, and where the military developed its most secretive aerospace equipment.

In secretive simulators and buildings with layers of surveillance protection, a new generation of test pilots trains AI to fly in warfare. Air Force Chief Kendall came to witness how artificial intelligence flies in real-time and to state his confidence in its future role in air combat.

"Not having it is the security risk. We have to have it now," Kendall told The Associated Press after landing the experimental aircraft. AP and NBC were granted permission to attend the classified flight on condition that they wouldn't report until the flight was over due to operational security reasons.

The AI-controlled F-16, named "Vista," took Kendall on lightning-fast maneuvers at speeds exceeding 900 kilometers per hour, subjecting his body to forces five times that of gravity. The aircraft performed assigned maneuvers nearly "shoulder to shoulder" with another F-16 piloted by humans as both jets streaked within 300 meters of each other, weaving around each other in attempts to put the opponent in a vulnerable position.

At the end of the one-hour flight, Kendall emerged from the cockpit with a big smile. He said he had seen enough to trust the artificial intelligence, which is still learning, to decide whether to launch weapons in combat.

However, there are many opponents of this idea. Arms control experts and humanitarian groups are deeply concerned that artificial intelligence could one day autonomously kill people with bombs without further human consultation, and they are calling for greater restrictions on its use.

"There is widespread and serious concern about handing over life-and-death decisions to sensors and software," warned the International Committee of the Red Cross. Autonomous weapons are "an immediate cause for concern and require urgent international political response," they further stated.

Kendall said there will always be human oversight in the system when weapons are used.


Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall testifies during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee at Rayburn Ho© Alex Wong / Getty Images

The transition to AI-powered aircraft is driven by pilot safety, cost, and strategic capabilities.

If the U.S. and China were to come into conflict, for example, today's fleet of expensive manned fighters would be vulnerable due to advances by both sides in electronic warfare, space, and anti-aircraft defense systems. China's air forces are accelerating to surpass America's, and they are amassing a fleet of unmanned aerial weapons.

Future war scenarios envision swarms of American unmanned aircraft conducting early attacks on enemy defenses to enable the U.S. to penetrate airspace with less risk to pilot lives. But this change is also driven by money. The Air Force is still struggling with delays in production and cost overruns for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is estimated to cost a staggering $1.7 trillion.

Smaller and cheaper unmanned jets controlled by artificial intelligence are the way forward, Kendall said. The operators of "Vista" say no other country in the world has an AI jet like it, where the software first learns from millions of data points in a simulator and then tests its conclusions during actual flights.

Those real-world performance data are then fed back into the simulator, where AI reprocesses them to learn more. "Until you really fly, it's all just speculation," said chief test pilot Bill Gray. "And the longer it takes you to figure that out, the longer it takes before you have useful systems," he added.

"Vista" flew in its first AI-controlled combat trial in September 2023, and there have been only about twenty similar flights since then. But programs learn so rapidly from each flight that some AI versions being tested on "Vista" are already defeating pilots in air combat.

Pilots at this base are aware that in some aspects they may be training their replacements or shaping a future where fewer of them are needed. But they say they wouldn't want to be in the sky against an opponent with AI-controlled aircraft if the U.S. doesn't have such a fleet of its own. "We have to keep running, and running fast," Kendall said.