Jane's Defence Weekly September 8, 2004
US Air Force F-15 Fleet Prepares For Arrival Of F/A-22
By Michael Sirak, JDW Staff Reporter, Washington, DC and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
The US Air Force's (USAF's) F-15C Eagle air superiority fighter is being prepared for a transition to a supporting role over the next decade as its newer cousin, the stealthy F/A-22 Raptor, enters service.
The Eagle, which has been the premier dog-fighting aircraft of the USAF since the 1970s, will continue to play an important role until 2025 and plans are afoot for upgrades to keep it viable, according to the USAF official who oversees the F-15 programme. At the same time, the service acknowledges that the Eagle's dominance has been eroded in the face of new designs such as the Russian-made Su-30 multirole fighter.
"Is the F-15 still able to go out and kick anybody's butt? Yes, it is," said Col Terrence Feehan, director of the F-15 system programme office (SPO) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. However, the technology and training edge that Eagle pilots have enjoyed has "dramatically diminished", he added.
Enter the F/A-22, which the USAF expects to have available for combat at the end of 2005. It said the Raptor will outclass any adversary's aircraft with its stealth qualities, manoeuvrability, advanced sensors, integrated avionics and ability to maintain supersonic flight. The USAF wants to obtain 381 Raptors, but can currently only afford around 224 of the aircraft.
Col Feehan said the USAF will retain around 200 F-15C/D models and retire its remaining Eagles as the Raptors arrive. The retained Eagles will be upgraded with systems such as the the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. The USAF has already installed the APG-63(v)1 radar on 133 of the 179 Eagles earmarked for it. The radar offers an order of magnitude of maintainability improvements, added Col Feehan.
While the service adjusts the role of the Eagle, it continues to expand the role of its newer 224-aircraft fleet of F-15E Strike Eagles: a two-seat derivative optimised for ground attack. The aircraft will be the first platform to carry the near-precision-guided GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, of which it will carry 16. The fleet is also getting new targeting pods and the USAF is considering adding an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
Despite the advent of the Raptor and its ground-attack capabilities, Col Feehan said the Strike Eagle will remain the USAF's premier deep interdiction, all-weather, day/night multirole fighter until the advent of the Joint Strike Fighter.
While the USAF currently has no plans to buy additional F-15Es, the US Congress may have different ideas. It gave the USAF $110 million for advanced procurement parts for additional F-15Es for Fiscal Year 2005.
Col Feehan said new F-15Es should not be regarded as F/A-22 replacements. "They are totally different animals," he added. "The F-15E is a bomb dropper. The F/A-22 is an air superiority fighter that can also drop bombs on extremely challenging targets. "If people have never had a concern as to why we need an F-15C/D and the F-15E, then they shouldn't be challenged by why we need an F/A-22 and an F-15E," he said. Ordering new F-15E-like aircraft would require a lead time of about three years from start of contract negotiations until the aircraft roll off the assembly line. It would make the most sense economically to buy at least one squadron of new aircraft, perhaps two, said Col Feehan.
Boeing is currently manufacturing 40 F-15Ks for South Korea and Singapore is considering the F-15T variant to fill its next-generation fighter needs.
The USAF F-15 fleet's record in combat is 101.5 enemy kills with zero losses, but the 'Cope India' exercise in February may have tarnished its image of invincibility. During the exercise, F-15Cs were reportedly outclassed by Indian Air Force fighter aircraft, including the Su-30MK, although it should be noted that the F-15s activities were restricted. Nonetheless, senior USAF officials said it served as a wake-up call.
While the USAF has said it intends to give the F-15C the capability to drop GPS-guided munitions, Col Feehan said he has not received instructions to move ahead with the integration.
As with the F-15E, the USAF is considering whether to install an AESA radar on the F-15C. Eighteen Eagles based in Alaska already operate Raytheon's APG-63(v)2 AESA system.