The F-4 Phantom II fighter still flies with a number of air forces, including Egypt, Germany, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and possibly Iran. These large 2-seat multi-role fighters were a triumph of thrust over aerodynamics, and formed the mainstay of the USAF and US Navy fleets for many years. QF-4s are former F-4s that currently sit in storage at the AMARC “Boneyard” near Tucson, AZ. They are refurbished for flight at AMARC, then flown to BAE in Mojave, CA and fitted with remote-control equipment in a process that takes about 160 days. Once fitted for the UAV role, they are used as aerial targets and decoys for testing against air-air missiles, radars, surface-air missiles, et. al. As of April 2007, BAE Systems had converted 217 F-4s to the QF-4 configuration.
It’s financially prudent, and fitting in a way for an old warrior to go out in a fireball of glory – but sad, too, somehow. Recent announcements indicate some interesting possibilities ahead, however, even as the very last QF-4 order comes in.
Contracts & Key Events
(click to view video)
November 10/15: The last of 22 Air Force QF-4 target drones will be taken out of service by mid-2017. The transition to unmanned versions of the F-16 – the QF-16 – were bolstered in March with a Boeing-awarded contract covering the conversion of twenty-five F-16s to unmanned targets.
Feb 11/11: BAE Systems Technology Solutions & Services Inc. in Rockville, MD receives a $15.7 million contract modification to exercise the Lot 17 option for the last 9-QF-4 full scale aerial targets. At this time, all funds have been committed. The AAC/EBYK at Eglin Air Force Base, FL manages this contract (FA8675-04-C-0214, P00073).
Jan 21/11: Budget cuts removed an outside contract for Lear Jet business jets to tow aerial targets for aerial gunnery training, so the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron decided to replace that function with QF-4s, saving about $750,000 per year. The squadron began flying the new missions in November 2010.
New procedures for attaching the banner to the jet had to be developed. F-4 banner tow project manager, Maj. William Hope says that they began with an old Navy banner tow system for another F-4 model. The final system uses a 120-foot chain linked to 1,600 feet of cable, which connects to the 60 foot long banner. All gunnery sorties are conducted over water, far from shore, and the banner, like the QF-4, returns to base afterward. Some QF-4s, it seems, will survive for a while. Eglin AFB, USAF.
October 2009: In a presentation to the NDIA, Deputy Director of the 691st Armament Systems Squadron Mike VandenBoom sketches out the remaining QF-4 program. As of October 2009, they had completed Lot 13 production and begun Lot 14 deliveries, with 256 QF-4s delivered to date. Production is now down to using RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft instead of F-4E fighters, which will provide another 3 years of full production capability until Lot 17, the final production lot.
QF-4 Lots 15-17 will comprise 36 aircraft, with deliveries lasting until July 2013, which is expected to provide enough inventory through FY 2015. Successor “QF-16” aircraft will need to pick up the job from there, and is expected to reach Milestone C and a low-rate initial production decision by Q3 2013.
Jan 17/08: BAE Systems Integrated Defense Solutions of Austin, TX received a $23.2 million contract option for 17 more QF-4 full-scale aerial targets (FSAT – 12-USAF, 5-USN), under production contract LOT 14. This order exercises the 4th of 5 annual options in the contract, and all funds have been obligated at this time. The 691st Armament Systems Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, TX issued the contract (FA8675-04-C-0214, P00032).
Jan 9/08: For the first time, an air-to-ground missile was launched from a QF-4 by airmen with Detachment 1 of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Holloman AFB, NM. The launch was conducted from a ground control station – the plane itself had no pilot. In the USAF release, Maj. John Markle, the detachment’s operations officer, said that:
“This is the first air-to-ground missile fired off an unmanned full-scale aerial target… This test is an important part of the Det. 1 mission because it increases survivability of our Airmen going against (surface-to-air missile) threats. Furthermore, it’s the first time the drone has been able to shoot back.”
Which Missile is That?
Some readers are wondering exactly what kind of missile the QF-4 is carrying in the photo. The short answer is that we don’t know. Early releases referred to a modified HARM missile used to attack enemy air defense radars, but that information no longer appears in the USAF article, and no response was received to queries.
On Jan 24/08, however, Jane’s Defence Weekly mentioned this interesting tidbit – which seems to fit our photo:
“Airborne live-firing trials have been revealed of a hitherto unseen United States ramjet-powered air-to-surface weapon. Under the Higher-Speed Anti-radiation missile Demonstration (HSAD) programme, ATK and the US Navy (USN) have combined a ramjet motor with the dual-mode seeker developed for the AGM-88E advanced anti-radiation guided missile (AARGM). The HSAD is a parallel effort to the other various SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) systems evolving in the US today.”
* USAF Factsheets – QF-4 Drone
* USAF ACC – F-4 Phantom II
* Fence Check – The Final Mission: The USAF’s QF-4 Target Drones by Mark Munzel. Photo essay with explanations.
* DID – QF-16s: Look Ma, No Hands!
* USAF (October 2009) – Air Force Aerial Targets: October 2009 NDIA Brief [PDF]