The Future of America's Eagles Part I
The Raptor was intended to replace the F-15C/D as the principle air superiority platform for the USAF. The cancellation of Raptor production in 2009 ensured the continued service of the Eagle. Despite its immense set of capabilities, a meager 184 Raptors does not come close to fulfilling the USAF's aggregate air superiority needs. The USAF will retain and upgrade 176 F-15C's in an attempt to retain significant air to air capabilities into the future. Although these upgraded F-15Cs do not come close to the Raptor in terms of air to air capabilities, these heavily modified F-15's will comprise a significant portion of the USAF's total air to air assets in the Pacific. The Pacific will be the heart of America's strategic and economic interests for the next few decades. As such, the Pivot strategy seeks to ensure America's continued hard power influence in the region. Despite what State Department officials might say, the clear intent of the Pivot strategy is to offset China's increased military capabilities. China is a strategic competitor to the United States (China recognizes and has stated this fact itself ). However unlikely a conflict between the two powers is, multiple fighter squadrons (FS) will be placed at China's doorstep to ensure American interests and act as a deterrent. This article will examine the placement of operational Eagle units in the Pacific and their strategic impact on the region.
Image 2: United States airbases in proximity to China. Red aircraft icons represent PLAF bases. Image credit: RAND, 2008.
Fighter aircraft are most effective when land bases are within 500 nautical miles of the area of operations (AO) (RAND, 2008). Kadena is the only USAF base within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwanese strait. Although the Eagle has a combat radius in excess of 1,000 nautical miles, Eagles based at Kadena will have a longer loiter time over the AO in addition to being able to rearm and return to the AO faster due to the close proximity of Kadena when compared to Eagles operating from more distant bases. Kadena is also located in close proximity to the disputed Senkaku Islands / Diaoyudao Islands (located in between Okinawa and Taiwan). If a conflict between the United States and China does occur, forward deployed units at Kadena will likely be the United States' first line of defense.
Due to its aforementioned strategic significance, nearly a third of America's future Eagle fleet (54 aircraft) will be stationed at Kadena AFB. These Eagles will be flown by some of the most lethal pilots in the entire USAF. The 18th operation group at Kadena is comprised of the 44th FS and elite 67th FS which operate 24 Eagles each (Global Security, 2013). The 67th FS has the distinction of earning the highly coveted Raytheon trophy award, the most prestigious award given to fighter squadrons in the USAF.
"Units are graded on air defense and air superiority mission performance; operational mission performance; organizational readiness inspection results; training exercise participation; unit achievements and awards; individual achievements and awards; and unit incentive programs." - USAF, 2012
The following video shows the 67th FS practicing their visual range combat skills. The Raytheon 2012 award video below is, in my opinion, the best F-15 video online and has some excellent mock dogfight footage.
In an air war with China around 2020, the principle adversary of the F-15 will be the J-10, J-11B, Su-27SK, and the Su-30MKK. The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will only be able to field a few dozen 5th generation J-20 aircraft by 2020 and they will almost certainly have software and post-developmental issues during the first two to three years of deployment (similar to initial Raptors). Of the 4th generation aircraft accessible to the PLAAF, the Su-30MKK is the most capable. The PLAAF received a total of 76 Su-30MMK aircraft between 2000-2003 and the People's Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) received 24 advanced Su-30MK2 aircraft in 2004 (Sinodefense, 2013).
Image 3: PLAAF Su-30MKK. Image retrieved via Sinodefense
Despite its age, the F-15C airframe still delivers excellent maneuverability performance. During training exercises at Nellis, American F-15Cs consistently defeated the more advanced Indian Su-30MKI in visual range engagements. The Indian Su-30MKI Flankers are more advanced than the Su-30MKK variant flown by the the PLAAF. Furthermore, American Aggressor Squadrons routinely replicate the Su-30 during mock combat exercises. The combination of both topnotch visual range combat skills and the upgrades specified in Part I, will ensure that American F-15C pilots will provide an effective air superiority capability to the USAF for decades to come.
Image 3: F-15C at Kadena.
- Air Combat Past, Present and Future by RAND, 2008
- Modern Millitary Aircraft: Eagle by Lou Drendel, 1992
- F-15 Eagle in action by Lou Drendel, 2002