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Air Force Turns Old Fighter Jets Into Target Practice Drones

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There’s not really any way to get around the fact that flying is bad for the environment, given the high amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted during each flight. However, there is some consolation: Most of the parts in old airplanes from companies like Dow Jones (^DJI) component Boeing (BA) and Airbus end up getting recycled at facilities like the one French recycling company Bartin Aero manages at the Châteauroux-Déols airport in France.
While Bartin Aero sells old commercial aircraft aluminium for smelting and recycling into soft drink cans, the US Defense Department has discovered a new way of reusing old military aircraft, particular its fleet of aging fighter jets. It repurposes them into aerial targets that are then used to test missiles and radar systems.
According to Fast Company, retired F-4 Phantom fighter jets are turned into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones, of course) under the the Air Force’s QF-4 Aerial Target program. Since these converted jets are blown to smithereens during testing, the Air Force constantly has to replace them, and it has announced that its supply of convertible old F-4s will run out in 2013.
That’s where Boeing comes into the picture. The aerospace and defense corporation inked a lucrative $70 million engineering and manufacture deal with the Air Force in 2010 to convert retired F-16s into target practice-worthy QF-16 UAVs.

For Boeing, repurposing disused fighter jets into unmanned drones is lucrative. The fact that their stock is constantly being hit by missiles is any business' dream; replacement targets are always required by the military. Converted F-16 jets require total overhauls of their hardware, software, and individual components. Smaller military subcontractors who service Boeing also benefit from the assignment; specialty arms contractor BAE Systems is responsible for creating the software QA framework and remote control system that allows operators to remotely control the QF-16s.

What kind of weapons will the QF-16s help test? Based on an unclassified 2005 report on aerial target programs, these newly converted drones will help “to emulate advanced aircraft threats exploiting low-observable technologies,” including supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles that Russia has deployed in the past.
In the long run, the Air Force has intentions to construct unmanned aerial targets from the ground up instead of converting old fighter jets into drones, which must be music to the ears of Boeing and other defense contractors like Northrop Grumman (NOC), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Raytheon (RTN), General Dynamics (GD), General Electric (GE) and KBR (KBR), especially given the uncertain outlook of US defense spending in this decade.
Boeing will begin the conversion of F-16s into UAVs later this year at its facility in Jacksonville, Florida, with the first QF-16s expected to be deployed in 2014. That’s good news for Boeing employees at the plant then, since they will at least be able to hold on to their jobs for the considerable future (especially since there is a constant need for new targets), unlike their colleagues at Wichita, Kansas, who will lose their livelihoods when the firm shuts the doors on its plant there at the end of 2013.

(See also: Is the End of the Military-Industrial Complex Nigh?)

POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.