The U.S. Air Force Develops Stealthy Target Drones to Enhance Training

The U.S. Air Force has revived a program to acquire a fighter-sized unmanned aircraft with stealth capabilities. The primary purpose of this drone is to serve as a target for training exercises, improving the fleet’s ability to contend with enemy stealth fighters. Advanced Technology International has been awarded a contract worth $77.2 million for the development of a 5th Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) prototype.

Current target drones fall short in accurately replicating the advanced features of stealth aircraft, making the introduction of this new drone crucial for comprehensive testing. The incorporation of radar mechanisms in the latest air-to-air missiles requires accurate simulation of potential threats for pilot training. The U.S. Air Force has recognized the importance of this concept and has established a specialized aggressor training unit, the 65th Aggressor Squadron, which uses F-35 stealth fighters to mimic potential adversaries’ aircraft.

The introduction of the new unmanned stealth aircraft is a significant advancement as it provides a cost-effective alternative to using operational F-35s for training. It democratizes training opportunities across the fleet, equipping more units with crucial skills to engage stealth targets effectively.

While Russia continues to struggle with establishing a fully operational unit of stealth fighters, China has emerged as a prominent producer of indigenous fifth-generation fighter aircraft alongside the United States. The J-20 fighter, with its remarkable avionics and stealth capabilities, is considered the world’s preeminent air superiority fighter. It outperforms the F-35 in terms of speed, altitude ceiling, climb rate, maneuverability, radar range, and missile arsenal.

In the face of China’s accelerated production of J-20s, the U.S. Air Force is under increasing pressure to train against stealth targets. The development of stealthy target drones will greatly enhance the efficacy of novel equipment designed to engage fifth-generation targets, such as the AIM-260 air-to-air missile.

The Air Force has historically repurposed retired F-16 fighters as target drones but is projected to face supply limitations with fifth-generation fighters for several decades. Therefore, investing in purpose-built target drones is necessary for future training needs.

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