AESA Radar Eyed for F-15C Upgrades
By David A. Fulghum
10/17/2004 03:29:13 PM
This is the second report on new technology being introduced with the 3rd Wing's F-15Cs at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Earlier articles appeared in the Oct. 4 issue, pp. 49-51. In addition to the APG-63(V)2 AESA radar, built to detect small cruise missiles, the wing is introducing the AIM-9X and helmet-mounted cueing system. Such testing occasionally provides surprises, such as the beyond-visual-range capability of the helmet device. Moreover, the revitalization and new dimensions of air-to-air combat are leading to other changes, including the reinstitution of the William Tell air-to-air weapons meet.
Mystery already surrounds the advanced radars that are expected to upgrade the U.S. Air Force's air-to-air F-15C and air-to-ground F-15Es as the service wrestles with how many to keep and what capabilities will modernize them.
The APG-63(V)2 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, designed to target small cruise missile-size targets, has been flying in 18 F-15Cs for several years, but Raytheon will never make any more of them. A more efficient, easier to service and lighter weight version--the APG-63(V)3--was designed to improve the air-to-air capability of the newest F-15Cs.
The Air Force intends to keep and eventually hand over these F-15C "Golden Eagles" to the Air National Guard and Air Force reserve for homeland defense of the continental U.S. It's also planning for installation of an AESA radar in the F-15Es to fine-tune its precision bombing capabilities even for mobile targets hidden in ground clutter. Initially, USAF was to begin installing V3 radars in 161 F-15Cs in Fiscal 2008 and similar radars in 224 F-15Es starting in 2010.
However, the F-15 "Golden Eagles" designated for long-term retention may not get the upgrade. An Air Force budget already stretched too thin is given as one reason. A second is that service leaders want to offer no competition to the F/A-22, which is slated to have a primary cruise missile defense role during expeditionary operations.
Nevertheless, an active electronically scanned array of some sort is expected to find its way into the F-15E as an upgrade to its air-to-ground capability.
"The F-15Cs may not get V3 depending on the number of other aircraft [with AESA-type radar]," says Air Force Secretary James Roche. "We already have the F/A-22, F-35 and F-15Es. The F-15E will be fully modernized, including an AESA radar. With the F-15C, we will hedge the future by taking one of them and going all the way through integrating an AESA on board. However, [Air Combat Command officials] said they don't see moving that priority up at this point."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper voices similar caution about the F-15C's future.
"We intend to make the airplanes that we have more versatile," Jumper says. "The numbers [of radar upgrades] and exactly what [aircraft] get what [systems] are still being discussed with the major commands."
Some Air Force officials point to a gap between Jumper's and ACC's plans. The disagreement is roughly that Roche and Jumper want the F/A-22 to replace the F-15Cs and F-15Es as rapidly and completely as possible. Specifically, Jumper wants to replace "long term, the F-117, F-15C and F-15E fleet of 750 aircraft . . . with around 400 F/A-22s." ACC prefers a more conservative approach that would include keeping the 179 F-15Cs in the fleet longer so they can be dedicated to homeland defense, as well as five wings of F-15Es for strike.
"We're going to maintain an inventory of 179 F-15Cs at least to the 2020 time frame," says Col. Michael Leggett, chief of the advanced programs division in ACC's requirements directorate. "We've got 18 V2s out there, so we're looking to fit the other 161 of those with the V3 radar. The question is the ability of ACC and the Air Force to pay the bill."
"The V3 is important to ACC for its combat capabilities," says Col. Joe Rine, chief of the aircraft division. "[In addition,] we're going to mine the talent of those V2 guys coming out of Elmendorf, and if we get V3, those guys will be valuable commodities in the radar world.
"We have a gap in cruise missile defense capability that we're trying to fill in terms of radar power [and range] and faster lock and target times," Leggett says. "But I don't envision it in the same role as the F/A-22. They would fill different gaps. I don't think you will see an overlap of capability or duplication of effort" with the F/A-22 going deep behind enemy lines and the F-15C staying in orbits near the forward line of troops.
Some additional modifications are envisioned for the V2 and V3 radar-equipped aircraft.
"As the technology of the radar and other sensors gets more advanced, the packages of data that we attempt to transfer will get larger and larger," says Maj. Bill Singletary, ACC's F-15 program element monitor. "There are plans in the data link area to expand the capability to take advantage of the larger amounts of useful data that AESA brings. We need to look at the complementary systems to share that information on the net so everybody can use it to full advantage."
ACC did find the money to build and install a single prototype V3 radar for testing capability.
"We're moving ahead as far as we can with the money we have," says Rine. "We have to test the V3 for a while to look at what the radar brings, in terms of combat capability, and to add fidelity to our estimates of reliability and savings. Our plans are to [make room in the budget] in 2008 for installation, but we don't know where it will stack up against all the other Air Force priorities." The V3 testing will likely be done at Eglin AFB, Fla.
A program to put AESA radar on the F-15E fleet is still not fully matured. "We have program money for both research and development and installation on the F-15E fleet," Singletary says. "That would be a competitive package, so we're not calling it V-anything. But starting in 2009, we have money in the future-years defense plan for those radars. Right now, we're looking roughly at Fiscal 2010 to start seeing the technology on the E-model. The radars we have now use technology developed in the 1970s. It's a mechanically scanned array; when you have moving parts, the failure rates skyrocket."
Senior operational commanders say there's no doubt the Air Force is moving toward the policy that single-mission aircraft are a thing of the past--a notion highlighted by the fact that the F-22 is now the F/A-22.
"I don't know how [the air-to-ground] capability will be addressed in the F-15C," says Col. Russell J. Handy, operations group commander for the 3rd Wing, based at Elmendorf AFB. "We're in total agreement with the capacity of the AESA radar to do air-to-ground [attack]. We'd love to have it in all our F-15E Strike Eagles [too]. Air-to-ground combat ID is a huge challenge for us. Even in the Strike Eagle we very routinely get into using the 'Mark 1 eyeball' as the ID on the type of vehicle."
Perhaps as a bridge to the advanced radar capability, Elmendorf planners are making it more routine for AESA-equipped F-15Cs and non-AESA F-15Es to train together.
"We just changed our scheduling to make those opportunities more available," Handy says. "We're jumbling up the schedule so that on any given day, a young flight lead in an F-15C squadron can pick up the phone and coordinate a mission with the Strike Eagles."
sounds like a better plan than what we did to 'em during Desert Storm. They had a mod called 'Eagle Eye' that consisted of a picatinny rail and cheap Tasco scope mounted to the side of the HUD!