U.S. Air Force Using Obsolete F-16s as Target Practice for New AIM-260 Missile Development

The U.S. Air Force has begun utilising its large reserves of retired F-16 fighter jets as full scale aerial targets to test its AIM-260 air to air  missiles, which are being developed to succeed the AIM-120 series and bridge the performance gap with foreign missile designs. The AIM-260 remains a highly secretive weapons program, but it has long been speculated that it could benefit from a dual pulse engine, an AESA radar, and potentially APAA guidance and dual guidance with an infrared sensor. These are all features seen on rival Chinese missiles, other than APAA guidance which is current used only by Russia’s R-77M. The new American missile is expected to begin arming fighters in the U.S. Air Force in 2023, and like later AIM-120 variants it will have clipped fins allowing it to be stored internally by stealth fighters. The Pentagon aims for an initial operating capability in 2022, although delays due to the COVID-19 crisis among other factors have raised questions regarding whether this goal will be met. Approximately 30 missions testing the missile against flying unmanned aircraft were reportedly carried out in 2020. The F-16 first entered service in 1978, and is currently increasingly considered obsolete with fighters being retired across the world. The aircraft is currently being produced exclusively for export with clients such as Taiwan, Bahrain and Slovakia acquiring the ageing jets as a cheaper alternative to modern fighters. Delays to the development of a successor, the F-35, will force the U.S. Air Force to plan to continue operating F-16s years after retirement was expected. 

The QF-16 program to convert fighters into unmanned flying targets has been seen to symbolise the fighter’s obsolescence, and when the F-16 was in its prime QF-4 aircraft were relied on for testing based on inventories of retired F-4 Phantom fighters. Fighters are not always shot down as often the missiles fired at them are not equipped with explosive warheads, but the presence of a fighter within the blast radius that would have been there is sufficient to be considered a ‘kill’. The Air Force disclosed the development of the AIM-260 in 2019, although when it began development remains uncertain. The deployment of the Chinese PL-15 and to a lesser extent the Russian R-77M are seen to have spurred development as these missiles left a significant performance gap with America’s top missile the AIM-120D. The Air Force publicly stated in the past that countering the PL-15 was a key factor in the decision to being developing AIM-260, with the status of the R-77M still uncertain and the missile likely to be unaffordable for widespread deployments by the Russian Air Force. Under strained budgets, however, whether the U.S. will be able to widely equip fighter units with the AIM-260 remains uncertain. This could potentially be more difficult for its allies, and as a result the likely much cheaper AIM-120D which entered service in 2014 will remain in production for some time. The AIM-260 is expected to cost over $2.5 million per missile at a conservative estimate. 

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