Upgrades Will Keep F-15's, F-16's In Combat for Two More Decades
By Stew Magnuson
Boeing’s F-15 Eagle and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon are dueling, if not in the sky, then in the marketplace. Both companies are actively selling their jet fighters at home and abroad.
To keep the legacy fleets flying for another 20 years, the Defense Department and the fighters’ overseas customers have a long list of upgrades in the works. Despite the arrival of the F-22 Raptor and the development of the F-35 joint strike fighter, production of the older fighters continues.
“They’re so far up the production curve that building them is pretty cost effective,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “They come with attractive price tags and modern systems.”
For the F-15, upgrades are divided into two categories, one set for the A through D models built in the 1970s and early 1980s, and a second for the F-15E Strike Eagle introduced in the late 1980s, said George Spencer, director of the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Systems Group.
“Our whole objective is to keep the Eagle viable past 2025,” Spencer said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference. There are currently 224 Eagles in the U.S. fleet. “We look at what we can afford, as well as what’s going to give us the most bang for the buck,” he added.
Upgrades to the aircraft’s sensor arrays top the list, he said.
The active electronically scanned array (AESA) is replacing the APG-70 radar. AESA allows a pilot to track and target multiple targets.
Advanced processors will replace on-board computers. The tenfold increase in computing power will help pave the way for the F-15E to drop a new weapon now in development by the U.S. Air Force, the small diameter bomb. Further computer upgrades will be added in 2009 and 2012.
“We need that speed and memory in order to make this happen,” Spencer said, adding that “AESA gives us a significant amount of lethality.” The goal is to “put bombs on targets faster.”
The upgraded computers will allow the F-15 to integrate new weapons systems more efficiently, and “that’s going to be a significant cost advantage for us,” Spencer said.
The Eagle can carry almost every type of ordnance, totaling 23,000 pounds on each aircraft. It can carry three GBU-28, 5,000-pound bunker busters and will be capable of loading 28 small-diameter bombs. This kind of flexibility makes the F-15 special, Spencer said.
The program receives between $300 million to $400 million per year to spend on upgrades, a figure that has been stable over the years, Spencer said.
A projected enhancement for the F-15 in the next two decades is an improved capability to shoot mobile targets. “They’re not going to sit there and let us shoot them. They’re going to be moving around on us,” Spencer said. The question is, “what can we do to defeat those mobile targets?”
As for the older models, Spencer said he expects the Defense Department to retire some of the A through D series aircraft with some of the Cs moving to National Guard units. Upgrades to these early series aircraft will include new computer and cockpit displays.
The joint helmet mounted cueing system, built by Vision Systems International LLC is being installed in C through D models. The display gives pilots a greatly expanded view of their target areas. “As they say, ‘first shot, first kill,’” Spencer said.
Also on the wish list is a better radar system, one that will enable all-weather targeting. It would increase the F-15’s range in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes, Spencer said.
The Air Force is also exploring ways to transfer sensor data through its Link 16 airborne network. Demonstrations have already been carried out, he said. The “sensors forward” concept calls for an F-15 to gather imagery and send it to an air operations center where it can be fed to others. “That will give our combatant commanders a great ability to understand what’s going on in the battlefield, and then make decisions on what they want to target.”
In a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-led demonstration, an F-15 passed streaming video to the Pentagon through Voice over Internet Protocol, and ground operators were able to communicate directly with pilots.
The Air Force has also demonstrated the ability to take control of an unmanned aerial vehicle from an F-15, Spencer said.
Both the F-15 and the F-16 upgrades feature the Sniper XR (extended range) advanced targeting pod. Reviews for the system, selected as the third generation of targeting pods for jet fighters, have been glowing, said Col. Scott Jansson, commander of the F-16 systems group.
“The pilots just couldn’t say enough about the significant capabilities Sniper brought to the fight,” Jansson said. The pods contain sensors and video cameras that relay data to the pilot’s cockpit display screen, and in turn, boost their ability to launch smart munitions, especially under adverse weather conditions.
Another pod, called Litening, has been fielded on the Block 30 models and will soon be mounted under Block 40s. They’re “being used over Iraq to help coordinate targets with forces on the ground,” Jansson said.
The F-15E Strike Eagle will be the first aircraft to drop the small-diameter bomb, which was designed to operate from a range of 60 nautical miles and to hit its surveyed target within an average of four feet. Operational tests will begin by the middle of this year. The F-16 is scheduled to add the bomb to its arsenal in 2012, Jansson said.
Like the F-15, the Air Force and Boeing intend to keep the later models of the F-16 flying into the mid 2020s or beyond.
“Even though we’re legacy platform, there’s a lot of investment still going on with the F-16, because the F-16 is going to remain a critical part of the USAF infrastructure way beyond 2020,” Jansson said. Avionics upgrades will make the aircraft more lethal and survivable, he added.
The AN/ASQ-213 high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) targeting system pod has joined the Sniper, giving the Fighting Falcon the ability to suppress surface-to-air missiles. The smart targeting and identification via networked geo-location (STING) upgrade to the HARM system will be fielded in April 2007.
Even with the STING upgrade, there are still weather-related limitations to suppressing enemy air defenses, Jansson said. A synthetic-aperture radar, to be fielded in September 2009 on the Block 50 aircraft, will give air-to-air and air-to-ground modes auto-target recognition and cueing ability. It will feature a 2-foot by 1-foot point targeting resolution capability and an increased range.
Link 16 will be used hand-in-hand with HTS-STING to provide precise target location.
“It will really enhance our ability to destroy, rather than just suppress, enemy air defenses,” Jansson said.
Aboulafia said these advanced sensors and targeting pods have rejuvenated both aircraft. The flexibility to mount different weapons and improvements to turbine technology cannot be ignored either. Their engines have evolved from 19,000 to 30,000 pounds of thrust during the past two decades, he noted. “That’s a lot of power.”
F-15s just fucking ROCK. I've spent the last 6 years working on them, and I'll miss the dirty, leaky bastards when I separate next week. I know I never said I would, but it was a lot of fun.
F-15 and F-16 are two of the best birds out there.
Beats the hell out of that navy shit.
I worked F-15s from '84 to '88 at Eglin and Bitburg, and I still miss it.
Consider going into the Guard or Reserves, I should have.