December 2003/January 2004
Volume 02, Issue 08
|Integrated Defense Systems|
An Eagle evolves
Upgrades have made the F-15 a 'go-to' platform for network-centric operations
BY WILLIAM BARKSDALE
Shock and awe...
That's not a description of war plans in Iraq. It was how it felt for this writer to see the F-15 Eagle for the first time. In the 1970s, my father, a U.S. Air Force master sergeant, decided his son should take a personal look at America's newest fighter aircraft at the base air show.
Here it was, the fighter that would help the U.S. Air Force regain a serious air-to-air advantage that some felt was eroded in the skies over Vietnam.
The proof of any new weapons system can be found in its operational performance in war. And over the last 30 years, the F-15 Eagle has used its revolutionary design to dominate the skies and deliver air supremacy. In the last 15 years, aircraft of the F-15 family have recorded stellar performances in conflicts over Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But don't let the age of the program fool you; thanks to its design, the Eagle is constantly evolving and becoming more capable.
Boeing has built more than 1,500 F-15s. The U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard have operated five models: the A, B, C, D and E. The air forces of Saudi Arabia, Japan and Israel also fly the Eagle, with the Republic of Korea Air Force recently joining as a member of the Eagle community.
The F-15E Strike Eagle, delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 1988, is one of the world's newest and certainly most capable combat-proven fighters in the world. Besides the addition of a flight deck space for a weapon systems officer, the aircraft structure was redesigned to allow for a new avionics and sensor package. The tangential carriage of weapons on the conformal fuel tanks delivered unprecedented range and payload. These features helped establish the F-15E as the world's best fighter interdictor, as the aircraft retained the air-to- air capability of its F-15C sibling.
One of the Eagle's most amazing attributes is its architecture. When it was first built in 1972, engineers designed it to outfight any adversary. That goal sounds basic, but its creators did that by designing structural endurance and growth into the aircraft, which easily enabled the incorporation of technology advances.
The use of open-systems avionics architecture easily will accommodate an advanced radar and a third-generation targeting and navigation forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system.
At the heart of the new avionics suite is the Advanced Display Core Processor. Providing more than 10 times the processing capability of its predecessor, ADCP completely replaces the aircraft's older central computer and display processor. Developed with commercial data processing technologies at a significantly reduced cost, the ADCP delivers increased efficiency and capability to the F-15.
A most visible example of the improved technology is the new Active Electronically Scanned Array radar system. For pilots, radar systems serve as their eyes in combat. Having the best one significantly improves situational awareness. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and Raytheon jointly developed the AESA and integrated it into the F-15 fleet. It is more agile, capable and significantly more reliable than a traditional mechanically scanned radar antenna. The real-world application is that it allows the pilot to simultaneously track and target multiple adversaries while increasing the ability to gain first detection and tactical advantage.
The advanced radar capability is already in use. The 3rd Fighter Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, has the world's only aircraft (18 F-15Cs) equipped with operational AESA radars. Improved versions of the AESA radar are in development.
Included in the Strike Eagle's onboard sensor suite is the most advanced third-generation targeting and navigation FLIR technology, the Lockheed Martin Advanced Targeting Pod. Coupled with the Strike Eagle's air-to-ground radar, the ATP allows autonomous operation and the ability to "find, fix, target and attack" targets. FLIR and the terrain-following system provide the ability to fly safely at 600 knots at an altitude of 100 feet, at night and in bad weather, to strike targets with pinpoint precision.
The Eagle and its two-seat cockpit incorporate seven different displays, including a wide field-of-view Head-Up Display for the pilot. Eagle aircrews are also using the new Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS). They can now attack an air-to-air target simply by turning their heads and looking at the target through a display projected on their helmet visors. The system automatically will lock onto the target, and the pilot can then fire the appropriate weapon without having to maneuver the aircraft. If required to close with an adversary, Eagle aircrews use the JHMCS and the AIM-9X weapon system to gain outstanding tactical flexibility and capability.
All of the technology in the world cannot substitute for the primary purpose of a fighter pilot: Place steel on the target. With the F-15's Global Positioning System smart weapons station capability, a single Strike Eagle can carry seven 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition weapons or 20 Small Diameter Bombs per mission. Using the fighter's capability to do combat "turns," or quick turnarounds for reloading on the ground, a four-ship formation of Strike Eagles regenerated three times can carry 240 Small Diameter Bombs to the battle in a single day. This capability allows greater flexibility for the air force leader who assigns sorties.
Another key modernization technology is the Fighter Data Link system that Boeing will install on each combat-coded F-15 by 2004. FDL-equipped Eagles in Afghanistan and Iraq have developed tactics, standards and combat applications that are leading the way in network-centric innovations.
To say the F-15 Eagle is alive and well is not bravado. The U.S. Air Force has taken delivery of 232 F-15E Strike Eagles, with four in production and scheduled for delivery in 2004. They will remain in operation through 2030 and beyond.
At least 179 F-15Cs will continue in operation through 2020. The U.S. Air Force is considering a program to add air-to-ground capability to the C model. The F-15 fleet will complement the Air Force F/A-22 as part of the high end of the service's force structure over the next three decades.
The Republic of Korea has purchased 40 F-15Ks, with the first flight of the first aircraft scheduled for early 2005. Deliveries of the F-15K are scheduled to continue through 2008.
Singapore recently selected the F-15T as one of three competitors for the final portion of its Next Fighter Replacement Program.
Amazingly, the same majestic fighter I saw 30 years ago has quietly evolved into a 21st-century, state-of-the-art network-centric-capable platform. The evolving Eagle has become the "go-to" aircraft for combat commanders today and tomorrow.
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