USAF QF-4 Phantom is shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s during last unmanned mission (and survives)

Aug 31 2016 - 47 Comments

During the last flight, the unmanned Phantom served as an aerial target and was shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s. Nevertheless, the aircraft landed safely back home.

The U.S. Air Force has just released some information about the QF-4 drone‘s last flight along with a video and some photographs. Interestingly, the aircraft that have flown as unmanned aerial targets for several DoD and foreign military sales customers testing next generation weapons, flew its last sortie supporting an F-35 mission on Aug. 17.

QF-4 returns safely 2

According to Lt. Col. Ronald King, the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, the aircraft was shot at by the F-35 Lightning II with two AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles). We don’t know the exact scope of the weapon test, the RoE (Rules Of Enagement), the scenario and whether the QF-4 was expected to escape the downing. Maybe something went wrong, the missile launch failed or was cancelled, or just missed (because no missile has a probability of kill of 100 percent). However, it’s at least worth of note that the unmanned Phantom landed back at Holloman Air Force Base completely unharmed in spite of being targeted by the (controversial) 5th generation fighter and shot at with 2 radar-guided air-to-air missiles.

Update 1:

The reason for the QF-4 not being shot down is probably that the test was not a test of the AIM-120 missile’s ability to hit a target (something that has been proved in the past) but on the F-35’s ability to track the target and guide the AMRAAM until this reached the kill envelope. Once the missile starts self-guiding to the drone the test is accomplished and there is no need to waste a costy unmanned aircraft: the AIM-120 is directed to self-destruct before impact.

However some readers point out that previous tests saw some controversial “misses” (“the drone was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was directed as planned to self-destruct before impact”) whereas other tests (for instance those with the AIM-9X) involving QF-4s or even more expensive QF-16s eventually led to knocking down the drone with direct hits (“After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 Air-to-Air kill or “Boola Boola,” which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone.”)

Will keep you updated if more details emerge and the expected outcome of the mission is clarified.

Anyway, the unmanned mission on Aug. 17 served as the final unmanned flight before the QF-4 program ends in December year, and the 82nd ATRS, Det. 1 transitions to flying QF-16s. Until then, the unit will fly the Vietnam era F-4 as a manned aircraft.

Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. is the only base with a QF-4 mission. However, the 82nd ATRS, based out of Tyndall AFB, Florida, has been flying QF-16s since September 2014.

“It’s certainly bittersweet,” said King in a USAF release. “The F-4 served faithfully in Vietnam and as late as the Gulf War. So, for it to be pulled out of the boneyard to continue serving its country is a testament to this airplane — to the designers, the test pilots who first flew it, to the maintainers who’ve worked on it all these years — what a testament to what they’ve been able to do, and what a great airplane it was. Forty-five years later, we are still flying these airplanes to test the latest and greatest equipment we have.”

Image credit: U.S Air Force














  • sferrin

    ” by (the controversial) 5th”

    Oooh, good thing we got that in.


    This is irresponsible journalism. You originally jumped to all kinds of negative conclusions about the F-35, without full details about the type of tests being conducted. And tests are just that, and their point can be to adjust software or a very narrow scenario, that isn’t indicative or applicable to a real world scenario.

  • Gene Edwards

    Since I am not aware that any aim-120s have any ability to “self destruct” my bet is that, like many tests either the missile was equipped with a telemetry unit (no warhead) so you can actually get some meaningful data, and/or the missilex profile included a drone conservation maneuver to give the target a chance to survive and fly again.

  • BernardP

    … and before they know it, they will be flying the QF-35…

  • Devolutionist

    So whats next for the bird back to the boneyard . I hope the airforce can catch up for these down years.

    • KesMonkey

      Check out the update to the article. Destruction of the drone was not the objective of the test.

  • WpnsLoader175

    Often in such missions the aircraft are also equipped with countermeasures and try to escape being hit by performing a preplanned escape move. Also the test missiles used in these tests don’t have warheads, or in the case of this test perhaps not even a real seeker. Certain air to air missiles are equipped with a data link and as such don’t need their radar until they reach the final stage of their flight. It is likely that there was NO intention of hitting the QF-4 if they have manned missions planned for it.
    During Combat Hammer testing I can remember a A-10 pilot that failed to announce his firing of the AIM-9. The Drone operator didn’t evade and didn’t fire off flares to avoid the hit. So the AIM-9 did it’s thing and killed the QF-4. The Pilot thought it was hilarious, I bet the Test Squadron didn’t find it funny.

  • Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo

    Dave, you should follow up with Raytheon.

    Someone needs to tell them that their missile is defective!

  • phuzz

    They’re using F-16s as drones now right?

    (QF-16 iirc)

  • Debate01

    It is not uncommon for most test shots to have the warhead removed and a telemetry package substituted to capture angle of approach, fuzing function, etc. Live warhead shots are typically very few. Even then, without a warhead, many of the shots result in a downing due to the missile actually hitting the target (at about the advent of the AIM-7F and AIM 9L series). Most of the time against “un-warheaded” missiles the test is running against some special profile that might have unique (and expensive hand-crafted) counter-measures or even telemetry on the the drone that the testers would prefer not to lose. From my time in operational testing I don’t remember flight termination hardware being on air to air missiles but maybe that has changed. Also, just FYI, with 4000 hours in fighters I don’t ever remember “Boola, Boola” as the “traditional” drone kill call… and I have killed a few. Normally the Air Force call at WSEP anyway is “Splash”… or a simple, “Kill”… but maybe that has changed also.

    • doglover321

      What he said. The best tests are when the missile has a miss that would have been a kill if it had a warhead. It costs $$ to convert a jet to a drone, and all that is wasted if it’s actually shot down.

      Never heard the boola, boola either. Then again I’ve watched some videos where the narrator says his chest is about to explode when he goes Mach. LOL!

    • Frederick Murre

      I wish I could give you many more upvotes.

      Also missiles with digital flight controls can theoretically be programmed to an offset rather than a hit- although this is probably not a feature in non-development hardware missiles.

      Of course with some warheads, an offset based on target flight path is normal for max PK anyway.

      Classic analog SARHs and Heaters just flew at the RF/IR shiny spots however, and were quite happy to hit them, if the fusing didn’t work. Heck even after popping, the hard-body has/had a habit of hitting the airframe.

    • chris sullivan

      “Boola boola” originated in the US Navy weapons test community in China Lake & Pt Mugu back in the 1950s & gravitated outward from there to the entire USN. I think originally one “boola” meant lethal distance & “boola boola” meant a direct hit on the drone. By the time I started flying in the late 1980s the single “boola” usage had dropped out. I assume joint testing has led to USAF pilots being exposed to it. It sounds cooler, which aircrews love. Similar to the USN slang “go green” for an encrypted radio freq starting to displace the more prosaic USAF “go secure.”

  • leroy

    Look at the edges and rivets and aluminum making up the exposed body of the F-4. Then compare it to the smooth stealthy lines, internal weapons carriage capacity and RAM that makes up the F-35. Is there any question whether or not we have entered a new age in fighter aviation? There shouldn’t be.

    In my mind only people who don’t understand mil aviation continue to question the overwhelming superiority of the F-35. In other words – the JSF isn’t your grandpa’s fighter! And if you still think Su-27 series or Gripen or Typhoon or MiG or Rafale or whatever can compete in the world of 5th gen, boy are you in for a surprise in the next shooting war!

    • cromicacid

      but relying on just 4 internal missiles with PK of 50% or less is something to worry about. BVR in both 1st and 2nd Iraq and bosnia have shown that BVR is still not so good.

      • 768PP

        F-35 is not going to fly only with its internal missile load. It may use missile trucks that carry 40-50 air to air missiles AND guide drones with weapons. May be F 22 will guide it too. You cannot ignore the fact that F-35 is highly networked aircraft and can leverage network resources. US military never goes to war with fewer weapons than its enemy. Only in theory, the F 35 has limited weapons for the job.

      • SOEJINN

        For the last 40 years the majority, near 90%, of air to air dogfight kills have been done by missiles. With about 50% of kills done in BVR and that percentage increases with each decade. Gun kills happen at 10% or LESS of the time. Missiles are scoring most of the kills and increasingly in BVR.

      • veej7485

        wingmen have missiles too….

    • Pacemaker4

      dont forget to reboot the radar.

      • 768PP

        That problem is solved already before A-version IOC.

    • Texas Patriot

      That would be all well and good provided stealth is really invisible to radar. It’s not. And the key to the F-35 is, I see you, before you see me. Really, you do know there is an F-117 sitting in a Belgrade Museum? Low Band Radar, ~ less then 1 GHz can detect stealth and all the black magic in the world can’t change that, which why this aircraft sits there for the all the word to see. Thermal imaging and Schlieren Signatures are another way to track the F-35. The only real way to see if the F-35 works, fly it over it the Sakhalin Islands or the Chinese contested airspace in the South China Sea’s and see what happens.

      • Uniform223

        Oh this tired old “argument”…

        Here is some food for thought.

        How many F-117s were their in Operation Allied Force? How many sorties did they fly? All they were able to do was shoot down ONE… ONE F-117 out of 78 days of combat action.
        You want to talk about the wreckage remains of SINGLE US aircraft in some foreign museum? Exactly how many Migs and Sukhois have been shot down by US built aircraft? How many of those Migs and Sukhois are on display at Museums in the US? Oh… those numbers are looking pretty high. Also in Operation Allied Force how many of those Russian aircraft were either shot down by NATO aircraft or destroyed on the ground?

        Also if stealth doesn’t work than how do you explain this?

        +I also asked about the plane’s Electronic Warfare performance. The F-35, as Breaking D readers know, is the first US aircraft designed to defeat advanced Surface-To-Air threats such as the Russian-built S-400. In training, the aircraft’s stealth was so effective that pilots had to turn on their FAA emitters to tell the SAM threats they were around so they knew the aircraft were targets and the F-35As could attack. “We basically told them where we were at so we could shoot at them,” Watkins said.+

        Did I just read that correctly? F-35s had to INTENTIONALLY make their presence known just so that the defending force knew that there was a F-35 in the area?

        If stealth doesn’t work why is China and Russia investing in aircraft that are designed to be stealthy?

        “Thermal imaging and Schlieren Signatures are another way to track the F-35”

        > Its a jet fighter… OF COURSE ITS GOING TO HAVE AN IR SIGNATURE. Show me a fighter jet that doesn’t have one. Also… how many fighter aircraft now or projected have as much IR reducing measures as the F-22 or F-35?
        Schlieren Signature? Really? Congratulations you now have to track EVERY AIRCRAFT IN YOUR AIRSPACE! At that point you’re searching for a small needle in a stack of needles.

        “The only real way to see if the F-35 works, fly it over it the Sakhalin Islands or the Chinese contested airspace in the South China Sea’s and see what happens.”

        > Well the according to all the testing, intelligence, and the writing on the wall it would look like those Chinese SAM operators wont know there is an F-35 in their area until 500lbs of HE lands on them at terminal velocity

      • leroy

        More ignorance. It always rears its head when talking F-35. It’s like a magnet for the totally uninformed. I won’t take the time to teach you.

      • Have you tried to operate and maintain a “low band” radar? I have. Both FPS-24 and FPS-35. It’s difficult and expensive. Absolutely a “first world” problem. Also, not something you deploy just behind the FEBA (if there is a FEBA) Also, easier than anything to jam. Also, a GREAT self-guiding target.
        I once toured a Navy EC-121 that flew into Malmstrom where we had an FPS-24. The radar frequency was dialed into the Nav’s DF. He said it was better than any other navaid. Worked for many hundreds of miles.

  • The Dead Rabbits

    Surprised they are not flying QA-10s.

  • murphmobile

    The F4 could easily be serving in Syria today…

    • PierreAyc

      It already is. The Iranian air force uses them to escort Russian strategic bombers.

      • TJ

        Not into Syria. That footage of the F-14s and F-4s escorting Russian strategic bombers was over Iranian airspace when the Russians were launching cruise missiles from Iranian airspace.

    • John

      Yes, but the US does not want to spend extra money on keeping a fleet of F-4’s ready.

      • murphmobile

        Private companies keep them flying at 12k/hr while making a profit. An F35 helmet could keep an F4 flying for 40 hours.

        • John

          It’s because private companies don’t deploy to warzones. Deployment costs are huge. In fact, the same companies demand danger pay [DSSR 651c], imminent danger pay [DSSR 651g], and Post Differential (PD), among an endless list of expenses to transport and house those employees.

          As you can see, supporting another type of aircraft requires a separate group of people. Because the F-35 has advanced avionics and sensors, it is capable of identifying and attacking its target: an all-in-one airframe. Other aircraft such as the F-4 would have trouble delivering precise attacks and will most likely risk civilian deaths (a problem Russia is having in Syria but doesn’t care too much about). The media likes to focus on the cost to fly per hour, but they completely fail the take into account the logistics.

          Furthermore, the US has flown OV-10’s in Syria to show that it is possible ot use legacy aircraft. However, most of that effort has been shelved because of high logistical cost, especially when such an aircraft must be flown in conjunction with more capable fighters in light of Syrian and Russian provacations. The F-22 has become the choice interceptor in Syria.

  • Mac Humble

    Maybe if the just parked the F-4 in the desert they could hit it with 20 million dollars worth of hardware. My money is on the F-4.

    • LackofFaithify

      My money is on the ground squirrel that chews through the wires and fuel lines while the pilots are off drinking. Fear the rodent. Fear the fuzzy. Fear the cute.

  • fastbackjua

    Generally telemetry will tell you if the weapon passed within lethal distance and this is scored as a kill (impacts obviously so – but you save the drone if you can). For instance the AIM-54 six missile shot involved three direct hits but was registered as four kills because a 4th missile passed within what was deemed lethal range. A fifth missed, a sixth was scored a no test because the drone’s blip enhancer failed to function. There’s no way to know the actual intent or success of the test.

    As F-4s are still in service with a couple allies I assume this a/c will go to Tucson for parts.
    QF-16s must be so much easier to automate with the fly by wire system.

  • doglover321

    A few years ago, my firstborn AFROTC cadet was going through field training at Tyndall and called me on his cell. “Hey day, I’m looking at a Phantom with your name on the canopy rail, and it’s #2 in line to be shot down.” Many mixed emotions there.

  • cromicacid

    An AIM 120C will launch and lock on the same way no matter aircraft it was launched from. The failure(?) of the missile not hitting it’s target is no fault of the jet but of the missile. The AIM 120C is a fire and forget missile in case anyone forgot.

    • Frederick Murre

      AIM-120s only have a short range capability with their internal monopulse seeker radar, probably less than 10 miles.
      Wow pup, you’ve got some learning to do.

      All shots with AIM-120s initially involve the launch aircraft cueing the -120 with target vector, range, speed, altitude and expected time of flight / clock sync, before it leaves the rail.

      In a BVR shot, the missile will fly off this initial data, and the launch aircraft will continually send radio updates to the -120 on target position, which are delivered with the launch aircraft’s much more powerful radar. Also the enemy will not be alerted that there is a missile in the air. Emissions mode from the launch aircraft can be the same as search and intermittent query.

      right before the AIM-120 enters its closest approach to the target (estimated from original launch data, or with midcourse updates – its own radar will turn on, detect the target, and make the terminal engagement.

  • Matthew J. McReynolds

    Got an ass load of F-16s, but very few F-4s left that are fly able here. Damn shame.

    At least we still have Greece, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Israel, and Iran

  • Stephen Chalmers

    OK, they never wanted to kill the F4 – this time!
    if they do get to that stage I’m happy to give one a good home.
    Yes, I am kind person.

  • sferrin

    Saying, “F-35” is like a dog-whistle for idiots based on the comments that typically flood any comments section on the matter.

    • Click whistle. It’s alarming to see how much nonsense people spew these days.

  • leroy

    Oh, I don’t know. The Marine Corps F-35B seems to be able to hit targets pretty well:


    “On day one of live fire testing, the team was able to shoot two missiles on two separate test set-ups within 12 minutes – an exceptional level of efficiency in a test environment. Another test mission involved an F-35B dropping a GBU-12 and supporting it with LASER guidance while simultaneously engaging a QF-16 drone. Both weapons successfully guided to their targets.”

    Not bad for a day’s work! And guess what? It can hit and destroy a drone. Wait until it finds its first MiG. Or will it be Sukhoi? Chengdu? To F-35, they’re all the same. Targets – nothing more.

    • Dude, that’s all fine and dandy as long as you fight non-stealth aircraft (and still, you’d be largely underestimating the enemy), but what happens when other stealth aircraft like Russia’s T-50 goes into production and starts being sold to everybody with the money in hand? Russia needs the money, y’know. Same goes for the J-20 and J-31. Many countries will surely be in line to get some each. Oh, I know, you’ll say those got nothing on the F-35 or F-22 because, somehow, you already know how such an encounter would end.

      Sorry, but you sound like a Lockheed-Martin ad.