F-16 Carrying AQM-37 High-Speed Drone Seen In Rare Image

The impressive shot of a test F-16D carrying an AQM-37D was taken during recent testing exercise held at Naval Air Station Point Mugu.

byEmma Helfrich|
U.S. Homeland photo
Photo by Kedar Karmarkar Aviation Photography


An F-16D Viper from Edwards Air Force Base was recently photographed while landing at Naval Air Station Point Mugu sporting an air-launched AQM-37D supersonic target drone under its wing. 

According to Kedar Karmarkar, the photographer who took the snapshot, the F-16D pictured was taking part in exercises alongside various other U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft types that have garnered attention for their recent activities in the area.

The Navy's 'Gray Flag' test exercise kicked off last month, but it drew major interest after F-117 aggressors arrived, and not long after, a Navy F-35C adorned with a new ‘mirror-like’ skin. Then, just days later, an F/A-18F was seen flying from the base fitted with the new AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range missile. These were just some of the highlights among many other aircraft, including Air Force F-35A aggressors, Navy and Marine F-35s, F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, and more that were participating in the exercise.

A satellite view of Naval Air Station Point Mugu during Gray Flag. Credit: Planet Labs Image

Of course, such a unique gathering of aircraft drew out aviation photographers. Friend of The War Zone and aviation photographer extraordinaire Kedar Karmarkar was one of them:

"I had heard about the exercise that was held at NAS Point Mugu from a friend who gave me the heads-up. I planned to be there for the last couple of days of week one. There were two vuls [mission interval periods], and the F-16s were part of the afternoon vul. It was a nice, sunny and hot day but then towards the evening, we could see the marine layer move in and totally block the sun resulting in 'shades of grey' and then some. That is when some of the recoveries happened - the F-16s, F-35Bs, ATAC Hunters, a couple of Hornets, and a P-3C Orion. Because it was grey and the light did not matter I hung on the left side of arriving traffic and was lucky to get a clear picture of the drone that was being carried on the left outboard pylon of the landing F-16D from Edwards AFB." 

The F-16D landing at Point Mugu fitted with an AQM-37D. Credit: Kedar Karmarkar

The AQM-37D being carried by the F-16D in the image is quite the unique catch. Currently the youngest member of the AQM-37 'family,’ Raytheon began developing the AGM-37D supersonic air-launched expendable target drone in 1996, and it took its first flight the following year, as can be seen in the video below. The drone was engineered primarily as an air-to-air target for military shoot-down exercises but also offers secondary roles as an air-to-surface target and ballistic missile surrogate. Its origins date all the way back to the early stages of the Cold War. 

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A slide from a NAVAIR presentation detailing a typical AQM-37 air-to-air mission. Credit: NAVAIR

Before Raytheon came into the picture, what would eventually become known as the AQM-37A was initially developed by Beechcraft in partnership with the Navy beginning in the late 1950s. A prototype of the first iteration was then developed in 1962, and the drone entered operational service with the Navy the following year. It is important to mention that the AQM-37 has earned different nicknames over the years since its conception, including Jayhawk and more recently, Typhon.

The AQM-37A took a bit longer to earn the Air Force’s interest, but the branch eventually received its first AQM-37A in 1967. At the time, the target drone was primarily launched from fighter jets and attack aircraft like the A-4, A-6, or F-4 and was powered by a North American Aviation/Rocketdyne LR64-NA-4 pre-packaged liquid-fuel rocket engine.

A view of an AQM-37A target after it is loaded onto the wing of an A-6E Intruder aircraft at the Pacific Missile Test Center. Credit: U.S. Navy

The inaugural variant boasted an operational ceiling of 80,000 feet and followed a pre-programmed flight path after launch to perform its high-speed target mission. The AQM-37A was non-recoverable and designed with an aerodynamic destruct package that would be automatically triggered by major system malfunctions.

Two additional variants would then be developed by the Navy and Beechcraft over the years, but the AQM-37B designation was never actually assigned for reasons unclear. A subsequent improved version is what later became the AQM-37C Extended Performance (EP) target drone.

A slide from a NAVAIR presentation showing a detailed cutaway view of the AQM-37. Credit: NAVAIR

AQM-37C was borne from 10 AQM-37As that were modified in 1981 under what the Navy called the ‘Challenger’ program. These modifications included a refined autopilot capability and enlarged heat-resistant tail surfaces intended to allow for higher speeds, altitude, and maneuverability. The AQM-37C took its first flight in 1982 and was then delivered to the Navy beginning in 1986. The new variant went on to feature a radio command-and-control system to facilitate changes in the flight path after launch, a digital autopilot, and improved radar augmentation. The AQM-37C (EP) also upholds the non-recoverability, disposable aspect of the AQM-37A.

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According to the Navy, the AQM-37C can fly at a speed of Mach 4 and reach a flight ceiling of 100,000 feet. When programmed for a 'ballistic missile' trajectory, it can reach a flight ceiling of about 300,000. For perspective, this is a notable improvement over the pioneering AQM-37A, which could only perform at a speed of Mach 3 and fly about 80,000 feet high at most.

Test pilots with the 40th Flight Test Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida flew the AQM-37C on October 17. Credit: U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Brandi Hansen

The AQM-37C (EP) is launched with an LAU-24B/A launcher and uses a trapeze ejection system to propel the target forward and down. Other notable facets of the AQM-37C include the drone's ability to carry a primary mission payload made up of an X-band noise-mounted jammer as well as a secondary mission payload consisting of an active radar cross-section kit amplifier, so it can appear like a larger aircraft than it is. According to NAVAIR, as of 2004, the AQM-37C had achieved a flight test reliability of 95% based on over 1000 flights and counting.

A slide from a NAVAIR presentation showing a typical missile mission profile for the AQM-37. Credit: NAVAIR
A slide from a NAVAIR presentation showing a typical air-to-surface mission profile for the AQM-37. Credit: NAVAIR

While the AQM-37D’s official performance specifications aren’t as widely available, it is known that the youngest variant was developed by replacing obsolete AQM-37C (EP) components through the implementation of a new battery, gyros, a digital-avionics processor, and an updated radar augmentation suite. However, it's unclear how much of its actual performance differs from the preceding version. 

Even though the exact plan for the drone wasn’t made obvious in these recent exercises, there are examples of how the AQM-37D has been used aboard an F-16 in the past. In November 2018, two F-16s also from Edwards Air Force base were quickly activated in order to aid in the testing of the Aegis combat system aboard the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) HMAS Hobart destroyer. The rapid deployment was in response to a scheduling conflict that would have prevented the Navy and the RAN from completing the test, and being that the F-16s are certified to fire the AQM-37D targets, Edwards was happy to help. 

An Edwards Air Force Base F-16 sits at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California, along with an AQM-37D supersonic target, Nov. 28, 2018. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by BU3 Dakota Fink
Airman 1st Class Cierra-Mae Hanson, 412th Maintenance Group, inspects an AQM-37D supersonic target before it is loaded on to an Edwards Air Force Base F-16 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California, Nov. 28, 2018. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by BU3 Dakota Fink

In this scenario, the AQM-37D was used to simulate an incoming high-speed missile attack as it was intended to better assess the operationality of the HMAS Hobart’s defense systems. This is especially important considering that it is the first destroyer belonging to the RAN to be equipped with the Aegis system, meaning that testing its performance in various missile attack and tracking scenarios would be pivotal in its implementation. It is unclear if similar exercises were carried out by the Edwards Air Force Base AAM-37D-equipped F-16D in Point Mugu, but considering the rapidly growing threat from ballistic and high-speed cruise missiles, as well as the need to test air-to-air missiles against high-speed threats, the target's presence at the exercise wouldn't be too surprising.

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No official announcement divulging the details of the event has been released by Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Edwards, the Air Force, or the Navy. However, Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California did share a brief statement on August 11 detailing that beginning on August 22 and continuing until September 2, the base would be hosting approximately 50 aircraft to support multiple test events meant to provide unit-level training for pilots and aircrews on the Point Mugu Sea Range. The War Zone has reached out to the base for more information on multiple occasions and has done it again for this article. 

While it isn’t absolutely certain that this F-16D/AQM-37D combo was related to the Gray Flag event, it seems very likely given both the nature of the exercise and because numerous aircraft types from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force T&E communities, like Edwards Air Force Base, were at Point Mugu specifically for it. Joint testing in this specific area has been increasing as of late in an effort to prepare forces for what a high-end conflict in the Pacific could look like. The aforementioned utility the AQM-37D could have provided such a testing exercise also points to it being part of Gray Flag.

Contact the author: Emma@thwarzone.com