The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said on Feb. 22 that it has finished flight testing of an F-16 autonomous gun system–the Digitally Enhanced Aiming Through Control Law, known as “Death Claw.”

The latter “completed flight test trials at Edwards Air Force Base [Calif.] and is now being considered for future integration with AFRL.”

Using the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School’s NF-16D Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA),”Death Claw” began in August 2017 as a collaborative effort among the Air Force Test Pilot School, Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Skunk Works division, Calspan, the 412th Test Wing and the 416th Flight Test Squadron before moving to F-16 flight testing.

Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) said this month that 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 of the VISTA drone, which the Air Force re-designated as the X-62A in 2021 (Defense Daily, Feb. 14). The VISTA is a modified Block 30 F-16D in service since 1992. Last December, VISTA’s AI allowed the drone to perform advanced flight maneuvers, AFMC said.

“Death Claw” has explored the feasibility of having the F-16 gun track air-to-air and air-to-ground targets and adjust aim, as needed.

The system came up last week in a LinkedIn discussion on whether U.S. fighter aircraft could effectively use their guns in the future against aerial targets, instead of using air-to-air missiles with price tags of several hundred thousand dollars each.

The first AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired from an F-16 on Feb. 12 to take down an unidentified high-altitude object over Lake Huron missed the target, but the second Raytheon Technologies-built missile took the object down, the Pentagon said (Defense Daily, Feb. 14).

“Over the past few days, there’s been growing conversations about why the U.S. has continued to use $400,000 missiles to shoot down slow moving, non-threatening objects,” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mike “Pako” Benitez, the former director of staff for the Air Force 53rd Wing, the service’s primary operational test wing, wrote in a LinkedIn post last week. “One of the reasons: In 2023, shooting a gun in a $100 million fighter jet is pretty much the same since the F-86 started doing it in the 1950s with the APG-30 gun sight. There are similar radar-ranged, lead computing optics that help the pilot, but in the end a fighter pilot flying a $100 million jet in 2023 must do the same thing as the 1950s fighter pilot: physically and precisely fly his jet to manually align the target with where the computer predicts where bullets will impact. And because of this, modern aerial gunnery still relies on skill…and has a pretty terrible accuracy.”

“Death Claw,” Benitez wrote last week, “is a zero-risk no-brainer application of autonomy in fighter jets.”

“If it had been fielded, it would have mostly paid for itself the past 10 days,” per Benitez.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said on Feb. 12 that the F-16 pilots believed that using the fighter’s gun “was really unachievable” because of the object’s small size, the difficulty in seeing it, and its altitude.

“It’s also potentially a safety of flight issue because you have to get so close to the object before you see it that you potentially could fly into the debris or the actual object,” VanHerck said.  “Therefore, in each situation, the AIM-9X, a heat seeking missile or infrared missile that sees contrast, has been the weapon of choice against the objects we’ve been seeing.”

It appears that the F-22’s use of an AIM-9X, instead of the fighter’s gun, to shoot down the Chinese balloon on Feb. 4 was the result of a prohibition on using the gun above 50,000 feet and of pilot safety concerns so as not to run a risk of the F-22 running into the balloon’s debris field. The balloon was flying at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, when the F-22, flying at 58,000 feet, fired the AIM-9X that downed the balloon.

In addition to the altitude and debris issues, it is unclear whether the gun would have worked in bringing the balloon down immediately, and analysts have pointed to a 1998 incident involving an out of control weather balloon in which it took six days for the helium-filled balloon to hit the Atlantic Ocean after Canadian CF-18s’ guns used more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

Benitez said in a phone interview that the point of his LinkedIn post last week was not to challenge the recent decisions to use the AIM-9X, but to point out that autonomous fighter guns can significantly improve fighter gun accuracy.

“The gun is terrible on every modern fighter jet because it’s all manually done still,” he said.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to put these guns in these fighters, but we don’t automate the process,” Benitez said. “That’s probably the easiest automated thing you could do. If you can’t even figure that out, all of your other R&D programs about autonomy are just a joke really.”

Benitez likened the delayed fielding of autonomous fighter guns to the Auto Ground Collision and Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), which “took 10 years to field after it was developed because of a cultural problem.”

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, AFRL, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration developed Auto GCAS for the F-16 and the Lockheed Martin F-35.

“The best technology that you adopt is one that changes the status quo,” he said. “If it changes the status quo for your adversary, it’s gonna change the status quo for you, and that’s the cultural problem. We have a huge cultural problem because we all love technology until it affects our jobs, and then we don’t like it so much.”

In a LinkedIn response to Benitez’s post last week, VanHerck wrote that “our greatest risk is our own inability to change at the pace required by our current environment–changes to policy, process, and culture.”