In a concession some months ago to what’s practical rather than what many preferred, Defense Department officials decided to update the Air Force’s fleet of F-15 Eagle fighters rather than buying additional, new production F-22s.
It is a move that shines a bright light on Robins Air Force Base where hundreds of workers daily engage in worldwide sustainment of the nation’s F-15 fleet.
Budget constraints – then and especially now – drove the decision. The F-15 upgrade – featuring an active, electronically scanned array radar – will give the aging Eagle impressive new capabilities, although the finished product will not equal the fifth generation F-22.
Defense officials irretrievably rolled the dice, first in cutting F-22 production to 183 aircraft from the initial requirement of more than 700 … then in extending the life – and the nation’s dependence upon – the versatile Eagle.
Officials have said the development of fifth generation fighters by Russia and China “is not overly disconcerting.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Senate Armed Services Committee members last week that he expected developmental “challenges” to prevent both the Russians and Chinese from fielding a “large stealth fighter fleet” in the near term.
Still, the Russians are developing their T-50 aircraft not only for their use but for sale to other foreign air forces. And by Gates’ own admission, China test flew its J-20 a year before U.S. intelligence agencies thought they could.
Col. Gerald Swift, who heads the eagle division within the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center’s aerospace sustainment directorate, is far removed from the swirling politics and brinksmanship in Washington D.C. His job is simple: Keep the F-15 supported and flying wherever it is deployed or used … and accommodate the changes needed to ensure it remains credible and effective.
He agrees that the updated Eagle will be strongly complementary to the F-22 Raptor, but certainly not its equal. Clearly, the Raptor is the world’s most formidable air superiority weapon system.
“There are advantages the F-22 has – and will continue to have – over the F-15: low observability, higher maneuverability and thrust vectoring,” Swift noted. “Having a smaller (radar) signature certainly helps. Those are key pieces to the equation. Another is sensors. The F-22 sensors are the most modern we have.”
Yet the F-15 updates will be impressive, particularly the new APG-63(V)3 radar for the Air Force’s 250 F-15Cs and Ds and the APG-82(v)1 for the 222 newer Strike Eagles.
The change from mechanically to electronically scanned array will solve a host of maintenance issues.
“We will get much better mean-time-between-failure,” Swift said. “We’ll go from tens of hours to hundreds. Then when you look at supportability and obsolescence, this is certainly the way to go.”
But it gets even more exciting on the performance side. “We will regain first shot, first kill capability by doubling our target acquisition and combat identification range,” he pointed out. “That will give us a much bigger stick out there than we’ve had in the past.”
The electronically scanned feature also will give F-15 crews much greater situational awareness with its ability to detect and track multiple targets at the same time and a near-instantaneous capacity to shift from air-to-air to air-to-ground mode.
Barring additional budgetary constraints, Air Force officials have decided to accelerate the F-15 upgrades, completing F-15C work a year earlier and F-15E updates eight years earlier than planned. The F-15C/D work will be done by a contractor field team at the operational bases. Sustainment for the (V)3 radar is contract for life, Swift said, although the local base could complement the contractor by taking on some elements of the system.
The (V)1 upgrades for the F-15Es will be accomplished by Robins. Installation will be done by depot field teams at the bases while follow-on support will eventually be handled by the local installation.
“We’re standing that up to be in place at Robins by 2018,” the Kansas native said. “That means we’re transitioning here to handle the new radar. We’ll be upgrading our facility over the next four to five years.”
How the F-15 and F-22 might operate tactically has been discussed in a number of trade publications. One suggested that the two might fly in tandem against a target with only the F-15 activating its sensors. Then at some advanced point the stealthy F-22 would proceed to take out the target.
Swift declined to discuss possible tactics but said the upgraded F-15 would be a strong, potential partner with the F-22.
“The Raptor gives us the kick-down-the-door capability and the upgraded F-15s will complement that,” he said. “Certainly the things we’re doing today with improved communications and data links would certainly enhance the force mix. We’re improving the Eagle in all of those roles.”