F-22 stealth fighter production is capped, so USAF officials are upgrading their best F-15C with advanced, long-range radars to beef up the air dominance force.
Because of the larger size of the F-15s radar and the aircraft’s greater flight endurance, they also will serve as ‘stand-in’ electronic warfare jamming and attack aircraft as part of the Air Force’s composite air dominance force that also includes stealthy F-22s stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Each fighter type will shoulder 50% of the air dominance mission now that the F-22 force has been capped at 187 aircraft. The upgraded F-15Cs will carry the larger APG-63(V)3 active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The radar's long range and small target detection capability will allow F-22s to operate in electronic silence with their low observability uncompromised by electronic emissions.
The first F-15C modified with the Raytheon radar was declared operational with the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing last week.
‘Our objective is to fly in front [of any strike force] with the F-22s, and have the persistence [because of larger fuel loads] to stay there while the [stealthy fighters] are conducting their LO attack,’ says Maj. Todd Giggy, the wing’s chief of weapons and tactics. Giggy was formerly with the chief of weapons and tactics for the 1st Air Dominance Wing at Langley. ‘That persistence is something we can add that no one else can in the air dominance world.’
The Florida, Louisiana and Oregon ANG will field the first 48 V3 radar-equipped F-15Cs. Massachusetts and Montana ANG units will follow so that the East, West and Gulf coasts have a cruise missile defense capability.
‘We’re embracing an air-launched concept for theater ballistic missile defense as a deterrent and as a tactical capability to protect our forces in theater and for homeland defense,’ Giggy says.
One of the missiles in consideration for the theater ballistic missile mission is Raytheon’s NCADE variant of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
‘We’re talking to the ANG about a demonstration of an air-launched, hit-to-kill system, says Ramon Estrada, Raytheon’s F-15 AESA program manager. ‘It takes the AMRAAM body and extends the range to support a ballistic missile mission.’ The AIM-120C-6 and AIM-120D AMRAAM models were optimized in part to attack small-signature cruise missiles.
The Air Force will deliver up to six AESA radars this summer for installation on F-15Cs at the Weapons School and 442 Sgdn. at Nellis AFB, Nev. The fleet will eventually grow to 176 Golden Eagles that are slated to serve until 2030.
The F-15Cs also will provide electronic jamming and attack capability, self-protect the force against enemy missiles and aircraft, shoot their beyond visual range missiles to supplement limited numbers carried by the F-22s and use the radar to create situational awareness for everyone else.
‘Weapons effects are the priority, and we are carrying so few weapons that BVR fighting is going to be distributed among all the platforms out there,’ Giggy says. ‘So we distribute the targets and weapons management.’
The F-15C’s electronic surveillance capability also can identify and precisely locate electronic emitters – communications and radars in the air and on the ground – to direct the attacks of other aircraft carrying conventional missiles or non-kinetic, electronic or cyber weapons. Examples of the latter are Raytheon’s Miniature Air Launched Decoy – Jammer (Mald-J) and the CHAMP high power microwave (HPM) generator for cruise missiles being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland AFB, N.M.
There are also more modifications to come, say aerospace industry officials.
‘The simple answer is yes,’ says Jim Means, Boeing’s director of proprietary programs for global strike systems. ‘We are looking in all the right places for the future and that includes the radar and modification to the [AESA] antenna.’
The APG-82(V)4 radar and a new radome planned for the Air Force’s fleet of about 220 F-15Es ‘we may retrofit to the F-15Cs,’ Means says. ‘There’s also a new computer, a larger cockpit display and enhanced bandwidth datalinks that can send more data to other aircraft faster.’
‘Our goal is to break the [enemy’s] kill chain,’ Giggy says. ‘The AESA is a critical component. We can’t stand-in against the current threats unless we can build that [electronic and radar] picture of the battlefield. The V3 allows us to pick and chose where we can go to deliver the [weapons’] effect. And some of those EW and non-kinetic warfare effects are very important.’
But they are expected to be only a few of the upgrades considered through the end of the F-15C’s operational life in 2030.
‘With the capability gap that the Air Force is trying to address through the air dominance category with the F-15C, we looked at a lot technologies,’ says Robert Martin, a Boeing business development official for the F-15 program.’ The Air Force is going to look across platforms for effects to enhance warfighter capability.’
Technologies already in consideration include advanced processing, electronic warfare, multi-spectral sensors, high volume, low probability of intercept datalinks and interoperability with unmanned platforms, he says.