Project VENOM will see F-16s converted into highly capable drones

Viper Experimentation and Next-Generation Operations Model, or project VENOM for short, will see F-16 fighters turned into drone wingmates for more modern fighters.
Christopher McFadden
F-16's could soon be converted into drones.
F-16's could soon be converted into drones.

bfk92/iStock 

The next phase in the venerable F-16 "Fighting Falcon's" career could be its conversion into a self-flying drone. A move that would also mark the next significant move in developing a network of drone wingmen by the U.S. Air Force could be the introduction of a small test fleet of self-flying F-16 fighters.

If successful, the idea would be that these drones would act as robotic wingmates, with perhaps two being allocated to a single-piloted F-35. They could perform activities like dogfighting and serve as a "force multiplier" for human-piloted planes. The official name for these uncrewed planes is Collaborative Combat Aircraft, and the Air Force might buy many of them. It has stated that it would like to have 1,000 of them. 

The name of this project, VENOM (or Viper Experimentation and Next-Generation Operations Model), comes from the common moniker that pilots have given the F-16. To ensure it works, the military needs to rely on autonomous software to control a combat drone better than a person who could control a fighter jet.

To this end, Project VENOM will transform about six F-16s to fly autonomously, albeit with a human in the cockpit acting as a supervisor, as a first step towards getting there. The service's proposed budget for the fiscal year 2024 includes almost $50 million for Project VENOM.

In an interview with the service's internal magazine, Airman, Air Force Chief Scientist Victoria Coleman described Project Venom as "a bridge between a fully autonomous set of capabilities and a fully manned set of capabilities, which is where we are today."

According to Coleman, human pilots would launch the jets while allowing the software to assume control in midair to test whether it functions as intended and offers the desired benefits. Coleman also said that by using this strategy, the Air Force could add new software and speed up experimentation beyond what is typically required to approve software for flight.

“Self-driving cars didn’t go from fully manual to fully automated,” Coleman explained. “The Tesla [vehicles] and the other electric vehicles, they’ve traveled millions or billions of miles where they learned and figured out how to interface with a human operator and to do so safely and securely. We don’t get to skip that part in the Air Force,” she added.

Most of the almost $50 million requested by the Air Force for Project Venom will go towards research and development, with an additional $2.5 million designated for acquisition assistance. The Air Force informed Defense News that no definitive decisions were made regarding the base and organization that will house Project Venom. However, 118 staff jobs are requested in the budget to support Project Venom at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base.

Between FY25 and FY28, the Air Force plans to invest between $17 million and $19 million in the program. The estimated expense of Project VENOM over the following five years is shaping up to be around $120 million.

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