The Air Force’s Venerable F-15 Gets a Makeover

An updated version of the US Air Force’s trusty F-15 Eagle fighter jet had its first flight test recently and demonstrated its bag of tricks with a dramatic, nearly vertical “Viking takeoff”. The flight, from manufacturer Boeing’s facility at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, is the first of many needed to bring the workhorse into the 21st century.

The new F-15, which first entered service in 1976, isn’t intended for American fighter jocks—at least not right away. Instead, Boeing is developing the jet for the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF), which is due to get the first models in 2021. The Qataris will then help pay for enhancements that will later make their way onto US air bases—a fairly common arrangement when developing new technologies with allied nations. When the Air Force gets the upgraded jet, presumably later this decade, it will be known as the F-15EX and will serve alongside the F-35 fighter jet.

The Lockheed Martin-built F-35 might want to look over its shoulder. Although the F-35, which entered service with the Marines in 2015, has stealth capabilities that give it a radar signature equivalent to that of a bee, the F-15 flies faster and higher and can carry far more weapons than the newer craft. (It also has phenomenal aerodynamics; one landed safely after losing an entire wing in a mid-air collision.) The F-35, intended to serve the Marine Corps and Navy in addition to the Air Force, is also notorious for a history of cost overruns, technological glitches, and program delays. For missions that don’t depend on the F-35’s advanced stealth capabilities, the proven and reliable F-15, especially with its state-of-the-art upgrades, could could prove a key asset in future conflicts.

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Those enhancements to the F-15 will make it a fully modern weapon of war. The aircraft, which is undefeated in more than 100 combat encounters—mostly by the Israeli Air Force in its conflicts with Lebanon, Syria, and others—will now have fly-by-wire controls that allow for more precision maneuvering and automation, a fully digital cockpit, and upgraded sensors and electronic-warfare capabilities. It will also have the “world’s fastest mission computer,” Boeing says, and the ability to integrate seamlessly with new connected-warfare capabilities, including the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) threat identification system. With these technologies, ground units will be able to provide intel and targeting information to airborne units, crewed aircraft can control drones, and fighter squadrons can work together when attacking targets.The craft will also see improved reliability, sustainability, and maintainability, which are already very good given the Air Force’s decades of familiarity with the aircraft.

As the Air Force sees it, the new F-15 will complement F-35s in combat, with the latter using its stealth capabilities to penetrate air defenses and the F-15s will unleash their heavier payloads. This will be critical because the F-35, to maintain its stealthiness, is limited to carrying only 5,700 pounds of missiles and bombs in its internal compartments, while the F-15 can carry up to 29,500 pounds of weapons on its external mounts, as shown in this Air Force Magazine comparison.

In the recent 90-minute test flight in St. Louis, announced on April 14, Chief Test Pilot Matt Giese cycled through a checklist, including the nine G takeoff, instrument and radar checks, and other maneuverability tests. When operational later this decade, the aircraft’s estimated $80 million cost will be comparable to those projected for the F-35 in 2025 but given their 20,000-hour lifespan, compared, 8,000 hours for the F-35 the F-15’s hourly costs are expected to be far lower. In 2017, the Department of Defense awarded Boeing a $6.2 billion contract for the 36 aircraft requested by the QEAF, and the US contract comes next, with Boeing anticipating a 144-aircraft production run.

When those enter service, the F-35 will have a bulldog of a sidekick in its encounters. On the other hand, it could be the F-35 that will be the one playing second fiddle, simply clearing a path and finding targets for the F-15 to get the job done.


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