The Pentagon Wants Autonomous Fighter Jets to Join the F-35 in Combat

The pilotless aircraft could take to the skies before driverless vehicles hit the road.

The U.S. Air Force Research Lab is moving ahead with an initiative to turn aging F-16 fighter jets into unmanned, autonomous combat aircraft. The pilotless planes will fly alongside the newer aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Speaking at a forum in Washington, Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said he expects to see the autonomous aircraft plying the skies alongside manned jets before driverless vehicles enter service on the ground. Work spoke specifically about U.S. Air Force efforts to create autonomous wingmen for its fighter pilots that gave new life to older planes imbued with autonomous piloting technologies and teamed with next-generation aircraft.

“You take an F-16 and make it totally unmanned,” Work said. “The F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter, and pair it with an F-35, a fifth-generation battle network node, and have those two operating together.” “Fourth-generation fighter” generally refers to fighters in service from the 1980s to the present day (including the F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s that make up the bulk of the U.S. military fighter fleet), while “fifth-generation” refers to the latest generation of stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35, which are built by Lockheed Martin .