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Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Future of America's Eagles Part II

Image 1: A pair of F-15Cs over Okinawa Japan. Image credit: U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Marvin Krause

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.

  7. Air Combat Past, Present and Future by RAND, 2008
  8. Modern Millitary Aircraft: Eagle by Lou Drendel, 1992
  9. F-15 Eagle in action by Lou Drendel, 2002


  1. Hi Matt
    I was surfing for articles on the F-15 ADCP when links brought me to your blog. Good stuff. Just want to share some thoughts on the future of the F-15.

    The Eagle is one of my favorite jets – on account of its aesthetic design and operational record. However, I would be among the first to acknowledge it is outmatched aerodynamically and kinematically by the Su-30/35 series. The success of the F-15 against the IAF Su-30MKI is largely due to the skill of the participating USAF pilots vs. the Indians, but this advantage is something that is not always available. In the first encounter between the F-15s and Su-30s and other IAF jets at Cope India 2004, the Indians assigned their equivalent of weapons school instructors against USAF line pilots, and the result is well known.

    Further illustrating the importance of pilot skill, the F-15 has been successful in ACM against the most potent 4th-gen+ fighter around, the Typhoon. In the Nov 2014 issue of Air Forces Monthly, there’s an interesting article about the 493rd FS “Grim Reapers.” A squadron pilot is quoted as saying, the outcome of a fight between the Eagle and Typhoon is usually determined by pilot skill and due to the 493rd pilots’ high experience levels, “we can usually hold our own.” This is stated matter-of-factly, without any hubris, unlike in the reports of Luftwaffe Typhoon vs. Raptor or IAF Su-30 vs. RAF Typhoon encounters.

    Upgrades have of course kept the F-15 competitive: in particular the AESA (and possibly the future EPAWSS) give the Eagle the edge over the mechanical scan or PESA radars and EW capabilities of the Sukhois. The F-15’s (and indeed all other US fighters’) main weakness is probably its armament: the AIM-120 (even the D) may be out-ranged by ramjet-powered Chinese and Russian AAMs. More troubling is its susceptibility to DRFM countermeasures, degrading its Pk and requiring multiple shots to kill each target. The F-15 2040C upgrade would address this by doubling missile loadout, but the longer term solution may be a new missile like the JDRADM or SACM, if budgets permit.

    IMHO the best way to employ F-15s against advanced threats would be to network with F-22s using Talon Hate, and serve as a “missile magazine” for the limited payload F-22s. F-15-launched missiles would then be guided by the F-22s to counter DRFM jamming tactics. Excessive use of DRFM might even allow the F-22 track the target using its ALR-94, instead of radar. The Raptors could then guide the Amraams (or future missiles) via 2-way datalink, allowing the missiles to remain RF silent, going active only in the last seconds of the endgame and giving their targets very little time to react.

    Best regards

    1. Hi Fred,

      The Eagle has always been one of my favorites as well. Its true, the proficiency of U.S. pilots is a factor that is often not discussed by aviation enthusiasts as much as technical specifications.

      I am worried though about sequestration's impact on flight hours and overall readiness. I haven't had the chance to ask a pilot, but I can't imagine a ground simulator can compensate fully. China in particular is really investing in its pilots in terms of flight hours and dynamic more realistic exercises:

      I'd agree that fourth to fifth generation teaming is the future for the F-15. I'm uncertain of how much money the USAF is willing to budget to keep the F-15C/D fleet up to date. I was pleasantly surprised to plans for the IRST moving forward (interesting how Boeing is in charge of that) as well as EPAWSS. I'd also agree the USAF needs to fund a new missile with greater range and ideally either a multi-spectral seeker or an AESA seeker. Given the F-15 is going to be around for at least another 20 years, the F-15E even more so, its definitely a worthwhile investment to pursue the aforementioned upgrades.

      Do you know of any good sources detailing the extent to which F-15E pilots practice air-to-air engagements? The F-15Es are by far the newest Eagle airframes, the APG-82(V)1 is exceedingly capable, and we don't have too many F-15C/Ds and F-22s. But, they only air-to-air "kill" I've read about regarding an F-15E was against a helicopter using a laser guided bomb.

      Among the best sources on Eagle upgrades, R-1 Line #135:



  2. Matt
    Look up It’s a pretty authoritative site, with F-15E aircrew members in the forum. Try posting your question about air-air training there. I remember reading somewhere something about the split in units with a primary mud-moving mission being about 80/20 in favor of air-ground, and an F-16 driver saying, if your primary focus is air-ground, you will never be as proficient in air-air as well.

    The F-15E, particularly the FY90 jets with PW-229 engines and sans its CFTs would be great in the air-air role. I wonder why the USAF never considered upgrading the earlier PW-220-powered aircraft to the -229: there must be lot of second-hand -229s lying around after the Saudis switched from the PW-229 to the GE-129 on their F-15S. With some refurbishment, these engines should still be good.

    Yes, the PLAAF recognizes their deficiency in pilot skills and is ramping up their training, but it might be years, if not decades, before they approach US levels of proficiency. Here's a similar article which references the RAND report.

    Best regards