A proposed upgrade for the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter now has a slick promotional video to show it off. The so-called Advanced Eagle, or F-15 2040C, would team up with fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to take on numerically superior fleets of enemy aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force has traditionally relied on a mixture of larger, more expensive air superiority fighters and lighter, cheaper multi-role fighters to establish air supremacy. The F-15 Eagle and later the F-22 Raptor were designed with one job in mind: air-to-air combat. Unfortunately the best doesn’t come cheap. The high cost of the F-22, combined with the end of the Cold War, an economic downturn, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, forced the Pentagon to trim its original buy of 750 Raptor fighters to a mere 187.
An emphasis on stealth and staying off enemy radar means the F-22 and F-35 must rely on internal weapons and fuel to get the job done. The F-22 Raptor carries up to six AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missiles and the F-35 up to four. While both planes can carry additional missiles and fuel on their wings, doing so ruins their carefully shaped profiles, increasing their radar signatures. External stores also increase aerodynamic drag, lowering flight performance.
The relatively small number of F-22s in service makes it more likely the F-22 would be outnumbered in any future fight. But there are hundreds of F-15s still in service. Boeing’s solution: Make the F-15 a missile truck with more than a dozen AMRAAM missiles. The Advanced Eagle 2040C upgrade would be most useful applied to F-15s updated to the so-called “Golden Eagle” standard, which fits a new AN/APG-63(V)3 active synthetically scanned array (AESA) air-to-air radar to the fighters.
In one possible air-to-air combat scenario, Advanced Eagles would operate with their newer counterparts to rapidly identify and take down larger enemy air fleets. The easier-to-detect and more vulnerable F-15s would hang back, quickly darting forward to launch their missiles at targets identified by F-22s and F-35s. Once their missiles are exhausted the F-15s would turn and head home and the F-22s and F-35s would then use their own built-in armament to continue the fight.
The Advanced Eagle upgrade consists of four so-called “quad pack” hardpoints on the wings, each capable of carrying four AMRAAM missiles for a total of 16. The upgrade also increases the F-15’s range with conformal fuel tanks, fuel storage reservoirs that are attached to the body of the aircraft to lower drag.
Probably the most important upgrade is the Talon HATE sensor and communications pod. Currently in testing, Talon HATE allows the F-15 to receive data from F-22s without the enemy picking up on the transmissions. Designed in the 1990s, the F-22 Raptor can only share data with other Raptors via the Intra Flight Data Link (IFDL). In addition to being an infra-red search and track sensor, Talon HATE allows an aircraft equipped with it tap into the IFDL and receive Raptor sensor data. The pilot can see incoming data, along with that from other sources, via a new central touchscreen cockpit display. One last upgrade for Advanced Eagle: a new, intimidating graphite paint job.
F-22s and F-15s are already training to operate together with impressive results. In recent exercises held at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, four F-22s operating alongside four F-15s have achieved a kill ratio of 41 to 1 against 14 simulated enemy aircraft. (Enemy aircraft were allowed to respawn during the exercise.) Upgrading the Eagles to Advanced Eagle status would likely keep the dynamic duo viable into the near future.
The upgraded F-15s would also be useful in taking on less technically advanced air forces. The North Korean Air Force, for example, is numerically large but technologically inferior. Advanced Eagles would do well against such an opponent, freeing up F-22s and F-35s to operate against complex North Korean air defenses or operate in other theaters deterring more powerful potential adversaries.
The Advanced Eagle upgrade would also be useful for other countries that fly the F-15, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan. The Japanese F-15J would particularly benefit from a larger missile capability, as the Chinese Air Force rapidly grows in numbers and technology. Japan scrambled fighters 944 times in 2016 to intercept foreign aircraft nearing its airspace, twice as often as in previous years, and recently began to double the number of F-15s sent on intercept missions. Advanced Eagles would allow the Japanese to fly sortie fewer planes, reducing operating costs and wear on already aging airframes.