Plenty of life still left in fourth-generation Eagle
Boeing’s F-15 Eagle has racked up an enviable 104-0 combat record, as one of the world’s top-flight air-superiority and air-to-ground assault fighters. Although the Eagle made its first flight 36 years ago, the latest U.S. Air Force plan says it won’t be leaving its inventory any time soon. Current considerations call for the F-15C/D to remain in service for another 17 years, and the F-15E for another 27. Out of a total 662 F-15’s left in service, the air force says it will draw down to 177 C/D “Golden Eagle” models, and 224 E “Strike Eagles” to supplement the new F-22 and F-35.
The F-15 has been continuously upgraded throughout its life. Boeing now describes it as a fourth-generation fighter with fifth-generation capabilities. The latest improvements include active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, AIM9X and AIM-120C/D missiles, fused situational awareness displays and off-boresight helmet targeting.
Raytheon was selected last November as the prime contractor for a radar modernization program for 224 F-15Es. The upgrades will allow increased detection ranges and near simultaneous air-to-air and air-to-surface tracking. On the 177 C/D air superiority models to be retained, an upgrade to APG-63(V)3 AESA radar offers approximately 10 times the reliability of the standard APG-63 radar, and one-and-a-half times the previous target acquisition range, according to Mark Bass, Boeing’s vice president of the F-15 program.
While the USAF currently has no F-15s on order, the production line for the aircraft is active, building variations on its latest model, the F-15K and F-15SG, for South Korea and Singapore, respectively. Production is based on a global supply chain that employs subassemblies and components from several of the nations that operate the aircraft. Korea Aerospace Industries produces the forward fuselage and wings. Israel Aircraft Industries supplies the vertical tails, conformal fuel tanks and other subassemblies, while Saudi Arabia’s Alsalam Aircraft Co. is responsible for various avionics.
Boeing has nearly completed its initial run of 40 aircraft from South Korea, delivering 34 so far, and a follow-on order has been placed for an additional 21 F-15Ks. Once South Korea retires its remaining F-4 Phantom IIs, Boeing sees a need there for an additional 60 fighters. Singapore has 24 F-15SGs on order, and their first aircraft is nearing completion on the assembly line.
With its current order book, the F-15 assembly line will continue until the third quarter of 2012, turning out fighters at the rate of one per month until 2010 and then at a slightly higher rate. Given the three-year lead time required for some parts, Bass said Boeing is hoping to receive more orders by next year to ensure no gaps in production. The company is currently pursuing additional sales to the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan, which is expected to begin retiring its F-4 fleet soon and may issue a request for proposals later this year. To fill the void left by the F-4s, Japan would require close to 50 fighters, and while they would prefer the F-22, gaining licensing permission is a major consideration. In addition to being one of the largest foreign operators of the F-15, Japan remains its only licensed builder.
While the USAF was the first to operate the aircraft in multiple roles, the F-15 has seen many “homegrown” upgrades and modifications from its international operators, some of which have been or will be adopted by the U.S. for its own fleet, such as advanced chaff/flare dispensers, improved radar warning receivers and infrared search and tracking systems. With this in mind, the USAF is inviting foreign F-15 users to participate in the establishment of a fresh road map that will keep the aircraft viable.