by DAVID AXE
America’s main air-to-air fighter since the mid-1970s is still going strong. The F-15 Eagle, originally a McDonnell Douglas product, now built by Boeing, entered U.S. Air Force service in 1976. Today a force of some 250 F-15Cs and Ds comprise the majority of the American air-dominance fleet alongside 180 or so Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors. With equipment and structural upgrades, the F-15s are set to fly and fight for another 20 or 30 years in Air Force colors.
Recent months have represented a kind of rebirth for the “light gray” F-15 fleet (as opposed to ground-attack F-15E force, whose airframes are painted dark gray). After a decade of counter-insurgency campaigns during which their services were not in high demand, the light-gray F-15Cs have returned to the front lines in Southwest Asia and the Western Pacific. This year the Air Force began rotating F-15Cs from Active and National Guard squadrons to an undisclosed air base near Iran — the air-to-air Eagle’s first large-scale appearance in the region since the early days of the 2003 Iraq war.
F-15Cs from the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing deployed in March to join light-gray Eagles from the 18th Wing home-based at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan.
Kadena’s Eagle units, the 44th and 67th Fighter Squadrons, are receiving upgraded F-15Cs that represent the future for the Air Force fleet. Fifty-four Japan-based F-15s are being fitted with either the brand-new Raytheon APG-63(v)3 or slightly older APG-63(v)2, both of which are “electronically-scanned” radars with no moving parts, as compared to older radars with mechanically-steered dishes that are prone to breakdowns. Electronically-scanned radars detect targets more quickly, are more powerful and reliable and easier to upgrade. The Pentagon has signaled its intention to eventually fit most if not all of its surviving F-15Cs and Ds with the new radar.
Sensor upgrades along with structural enhancements — new wiring is the current focus — should see the F-15 through another 20 years of service, at least, Col. Gerald Swift, then-head of the Air Force’s Eagle maintenance effort within the Aerospace Sustainment Directorate at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, said last year. “Right now, there is nothing life-limiting on the F-15,” Swift said. “It is a very well-designed platform.” The Air Force foresees retiring the F-15C/D in 2025. “But those are just planning factors,” Swift stressed.
Boeing is offering even more ambitious upgrades to the global Eagle fleet, which includes F-15s in service with South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Israel and Singapore. The “Silent Eagle” package, available for new-build or existing aircraft, adds stealth features including canted tail fins plus a belly bay for internal weapons carriage — these in addition to the new radar and other sensor enhancements. The Air Force has not expressed interest in the full Silent Eagle update.
Eagle crews are adopting new tactics to keep their upgraded jets viable against better and better rival aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30. F-15s often work alongside F-22s, using their longer loiter time to cover for the radar-evading Raptors.
As a sign of the F-15’s enduring prowess, the Eagle-equipped 67th Fighter Squadron received the 2011 Raytheon Trophy, awarded to the Air Force’s top air-to-air unit. This video, produced by a 67th pilot, depicts F-15s training over the Pacific.