The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Air Force Test Center, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held 12 artificial intelligence (AI)-driven flight tests last December at Edwards AFB, Calif., of the X-62A Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA), a modified Block 30 F-16D in service since 1992, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) said on Feb. 14.

AFRL said that its Autonomous Air Combat Operations’ (AACO) and DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) AI algorithms permitted the X-62A to execute advanced fighter maneuvers in the tests last Dec. 1-16.

“AACO’s AI agents performed one-on-one beyond-visual-range, or BVR, engagements against a simulated adversary, and ACE’s AI agents performed within-visual-range maneuvering, known as dogfighting, against constructive AI red-team agents,” AFMC said.

“Both teams’ AI agents executed autonomous tactical maneuvering while maintaining real-world airspace boundaries and optimizing aircraft performance,” per AFMC. “These tests are built upon the X-62A VISTA upgrade, which allows the X-62 to be controlled by AI-driven autonomy algorithms and mimic flight characteristics of fixed-wing vehicles such as a [General Atomics‘] MQ-20 or as in these tests, an F-16.”

DARPA is exploring the future U.S. use of autonomous drone swarms against high-tech adversaries under the agency’s Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms (AMASS) program (Defense Daily, Feb. 9).

AMASS is exploring the concept of prepositioning thousands of drones for possible conflicts with high-tech nations. But DARPA has said current drones require frequent or constant communications, which may be impossible in such conflicts, and that the military services and allied nations “have yet to achieve the large-scale, dynamic autonomy necessary to be effective against a peerstate adversary’s A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] capabilities.”

Using lessons from the Skyborg, Loyal Wingman, and DARPA’s ACE programs, the Air Force is to move out on fielding a significant combat drone force,  Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said last year. (Defense Daily, Feb. 7, 2022).

AFMC said on Feb. 14 that in several instances from the X-62A VISTA tests last December, “pilots completed the tests for ACE and AACO within hours of each other after engineers switched autonomy algorithms onboard the X-62A in minutes.”

Malcolm Cotting, the director of research for the Air Force Test Pilot School, said in the AFMC statement that the X-62A VISTA team has proven that “they are capable of complex AI test missions that accelerate the development and testing of autonomy capabilities for the DoD.”