10/03/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2013

The Next Generation of Drone Warfare Is Here

Last week, two F-16s took off, broke the sound barrier, executed several complex maneuvers including barrel rolls and "Split S" rolls, and landed -- all without a pilot.

Ostensibly, these aging jets have been retrofitted by Boeing to be used as unmanned planes for target practice and training, but the implications for the future of drone warfare is clear.

Capable of maneuvers at 9 Gs, reaching speeds of over Mach 2, and equipped with an M61 Vulcan cannon and 11 weapon mounts, the F-16 air superiority fighter presents a significant upgrade over the lumbering propeller driven drones that currently patrol the skies.

Moreover, without human pilots, these planes can be pushed to their engineering limits, executing dangerous maneuvers without risking lives.

"I can tell you that there are no plans to use these aircraft as a combat asset," said Air Force spokesman Master Sergeant Randy Redman. "This is just the next step in the evolution of the training program to ensure that our pilots remain the best in the world."

While the Air Force may insist that it has no plans to use these drones in combat, the calculus continues to shift towards just that.

"There is every reason to believe that these so-called 'targets' could become a test bed for drone warfare, moving us closer and closer to automated killing," said Professor Noel Sharkey, a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Transforming existing fighter jets into drones is becoming an increasingly economical option in light of dwindling military budgets and the fact that the troubled next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is running hundreds of billions of dollars over budget and nearly a decade behind schedule.

Furthermore, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the current weapon of choice against insurgents, costs roughly $20 million each, and the Air Force spends more than $6 million to train a single fighter pilot and is struggling to retain them.

In contrast, under an initial contract of $70 million, Boeing has already modified six F-16s, re-designated the QF-16, and is scheduled to begin low-rate production with an expected delivery date in 2015.

While the QF-16 isn't the first unmanned fighter jet to soar through the skies -- since the mid-70s, the Air Force has used unmanned F-4s, or QF-4s for target practice -- the QF-16 is the first modern jet to fly without a pilot and is a stark reminder of the growing use of unmanned drones by the Pentagon.

Earlier this year, the Navy's autonomous X-47B drone made history when it successfully landed by itself on the moving flight deck of an aircraft carrier at sea, one of the most challenging feats in modern aviation.

Beyond just taking off and landing without a pilot, unmanned fighter jets are also capable of firing missiles. Since 2008, the military has used unmanned F-4 Phantoms to test fire experimental missiles, and rumors continue to swirl that the next generation long-range stealth bomber, capable of delivering nuclear weapons, could be unmanned.

Skeptics have long dismissed drones as incapable of landing on carriers and some commanders continue to question their efficacy against an opponent with strong air defenses, but long-term trends continue to push for their use -- shrinking budgets, the zero-cost to American lives, and the powerful Congressional Drone Caucus.

With these trends in place and the technological capabilities largely developed, it seems only a matter of time before these advanced fighter jet drones dominate the skies.