AFA Cadets Designing Stealth Target Drone

Air Force Academy cadets are designing what could end up being the service’s next stealthy jet. Yup, you read that correctly. Cadets are working on a twin engine, stealthy target drone meant to serve as live-fire targets for F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots.

While the service is already replacing its ancient QF-4 Phantoms with 1980s-vintage QF-16 Fighting Falcon drones, these unmanned “legacy” fighters don’t pose much of a challenge to fifth-gen fighter jocks. So, cadets are busy designing a cheap but stealthy target drone that could replace the QF-16s.

The 40-foot long plane would have stealthy angles designed to scatter radar beams but would use old GE J85 turbojet engines taken from retired T-38 Talon trainer jets as a way to keep costs down to about $3.5 million a pop, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette. (Hey, the drones are already doomed so why not put old engines on them.) One of the coolest things about the program is the fact that cadets are using a 3D printer to pump out models of the the plane

From the Gazette:

The printer fires a laser into a slurry of plastic resins, building objects microns at a time by hardening tiny amounts of the material. In a few hours, a 1/24th scale model of the plane suitable for use in the wind tunnel emerges, saving days or weeks of construction time.

The plastic models and a larger wooden model have been tested at the academy and at the aeronautics school at the University of Washington in Seattle.

After a series of refinements, data show the plane is almost ready for take off.


The project began about eight years ago when the service asked the Air Force Academy and other design teams to come up with a target drone that would pose a more realistic challenge to fifth-gen fighter pilots. Almost a decade later, only the academy and one other team remain in the competition and the Air Force may declare a winner later this year, according to the Gazette. After that, the design will be sent to an aircraft manufacturer to be put into production.

If only designing combat jets was this easy. Heck, considering the fact that it’s meant to be expendable and won’t need a ton of battlefield sensors built into it this drone may well beat any of the other stealthy jets — like the next-gen bomber or UAVs — that the Air Force is planning on buying into service.

  • STemplar

    Long range single strike option?

    • EJ257

      Wouldn’t a tomahawk have a lower RCS than this thing?

      • STemplar

        Sure, but probably not the range and this could probably have weapons bays, so say drop 4 or 5 SDBs along with a bigger warhead. A couple three would be all you need to make a mess of an airfield.

        • blight_

          Then it muscles into UCAV territory, and requires some serious mission creep.

  • John Moore

    How much is this drone going to cost?

    • STemplar

      Says $3.5 million a pop.

    • DamageInc

      Try reading the article. What you find may surprise you

  • Will

    Have to think the “die at the hands of” & “suicide mission” language used in the piece is just misleading. Imagine what the cost would be if every F-22 & F-35 pilot got as little as 1 chance to destroy 1 in his career, at $3.5M each

    • MCQknight

      That’s about the same price it costs to bring a QF-4 or QF-16 out of the boneyard and blowing them up. Plus this thing might be able to be developed into a UCAV down the road.

  • Musson1

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to use the Iranian AF?

    • Harden

      Best answer ever.

    • Ronald Reagan

      The Iranian AF aren’t much of a challenge, probably less effective that a Radio Controlled QF-4 :D

    • Chimp

      The trick is to encourage Iran to buy semi-decent fighters (Su-27/30) and spend a mint on training up their pilots.

      *Then* use them for training.

  • Michael

    That picture is wild.

  • Yep

    Sounds more like a SLS machine than a 3D printer…

    • SFF

      More like SLA than SLS…

  • MCQknight

    This is crazy to be reading this here. I worked on this project as a Firstie before I graduated.

  • blight

    “The academy’s design, if picked by the Pentagon possibly later this year, will be sent to an aircraft manufacturer that will build it.”

    Oh, I wonder if that story will end happily.

    • Yep

      heard it is already behind schdeule and over budget…

      • Anonymous

        Just wait for it to get to the contractors…Budgets will work backwards starting with ‘how many people need someplace to charge?’

        • blight_

          Prouty’s Secret Team would blame it on the CIA looking for places to launder money. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

      • MCQknight

        That would be incredible considering the contract hasn’t even been signed yet (i.e: no Air Force allocated budget has been spent, and no schedule agreed upon). I’m guessing you’re familiarity with this program is about zero.

        • Cheesed

          You know that Yep was being funny, right?

  • blight

    As an aside, time to go learn more about 3d printing.

    Start at the forbidden page of wrong-ness:

  • blight

    I’m wondering if we would learn more from simulated missile training in DACT versus just firing missiles into drones, even if they are stealthy and/or fast.

    Pitting aircraft against each other using simulated missiles would teach ACM and missile evasion techniques. We already expend live missiles on drones, so the missile consumption wouldn’t change. However, how does one simulate missile warhead explosions in a safe manner? Referees and inert warheads?

    • cthel

      Instrumentation warheads would be more useful - measure the distance at nearest approach (obviously, you’d need to tweak the guidance software to miss by a safety margin), coupled with a referee system (possibly computerised).

      It might even be worth looking into making the training missiles recoverable, by giving over some of the warhead space to a parachute system. Might make a significant saving, provided the rocket motor doesn’t cause too much damage to the missile airframe, but even if it does, there’s probably a saving in recovering the seeker head and guidance equipment.

      • blight_

        The other possibility might be having the seeker head eject and parachute, but then that creates the danger of object ingestion and causes a change in pilot behavior to compensate, which may create bad habits for wartime.

        In any case, the present training regime consumes warheads, presumably seeker and all against drones for live-fires. I don’t know how those mock-up combats take place between aircraft, and I would presume it uses radar locks rather than firing actual missiles at each other.

        • Joe Schmoe

          Watch “IMAX Fighter Pilot” (you can find it on Youtube) to see such a system in action, it’s basically a computer game taken a step up.

  • John

    >>> as a way to keep costs down to about $3.5 million a pop,

    If you believe that, I have a bridge for sale. This is the US military. Why would they only pay $3.5 million when they could get away with paying $15 million for the same thing?

  • Letsallbefriends

    Why not just set fire to a big pile of money?

  • Sanem2

    put some missiles on that drone; you’ll no longer need the F-22 or the F-35

    • crackedlenses

      We can decide that after we see who well it does against the F-22/35…..

  • Dfens

    Too bad it has verticals. It could be 6th generation without them. Just ask Boeing. Kinda looks like a flying hot dog. I guess the USAF doesn’t have any better idea how to build a new airplane than their contractors do.

    • William C.

      I’ll agree that the whole 6th generation thing is just marketing hype, but how can you say the Boeing F/A-XX and F-X are lacking in ideas as far as the airframe goes? What do you expect it to look like.

      My only concern with the F-X concept is the intake locations, which certainly aren’t all that ideal for a fighter.

  • Dfens

    This one’s a weiner!

  • Lance

    Wouldn’t it make it impossible to use AMRAAMs then??? This is ridicules a target is a target and most of our enemy’s don’t have 5th gen fighters so older drones are fine. More waste of money from the pentagon.

  • MCQknight

    Oh, just FYI I’m pretty sure the model pictured is not the same airframe design that the Academy selected to compete in the competition. This looks like one of the dozens and dozens of alternative design concepts that we tested.

    • Dfens

      Yeah, I’ll bet if you put a million monkeys in a room and let them beat on a million typewriters they’d come up with a work of Shakespear eventually, right?

    • blight_

      I would agree. Photos are rarely in sync with the stories they are bundled with.

      • Dfens

        Design by committee is the Air Force way. I’ll bet these space cadets are learning all about how the Air Force does things.

        • blight_

          When was the last time something was designed singlehandedly, and not in a committee (committee at its broadest taken to mean designed by more than one person).

          • Dfens

            Don’t parse words with me. When Kelly Johnson designed an airplane it was his airplane. If I design something and have some engineers working under me doing piece parts, it’s still my design. My name is on the top drawing. I’m the one people come to if things are screwed up, and I get the credit when it works right. That’s how engineering is when it works. It’s not some nameless, faceless crowd of people vying for some political victory. It’s one guy who puts his name on the line.

    • jaydee829

      Actually this is the near the most current model being developed. I would know, that’s me in the picture :-)

  • donald meza

    In flagdtaff arizona I sent a paper on ket propusion have 5 shifting shape get a big pipe with holes on the end, a mineral jar set and give the inventer a mold engener company science books will come with (4000 maybys in wild theories) industrial catolog will say space flight is advanceind 4 page document on wanting 3 moon basse and 10 ships faster and sooner

  • دانلود فیلم

    Very good