v1.0.0 / 01 jul 03 / greg goebel / public domain
* This chapter provides a description of the origins of the F-15, its primary technical features, and F-15 variants.
* In 1965, the USAF began studies for a "Fighter Experimental (FX)" to replace the Air Force's current first-line fighter, the McDonnell Douglas (MDD) F-4 Phantom, leading to an issue of a request for proposals to the US aviation industry in 1966 for an ambiguously-named "Tactical Support Aircraft". Several manufacturers submitted proposals, but they were not followed up at the time.
The effort did lead to a second RFP in February 1968. In that time the Air Force had learned some lessons from air combat over Vietnam that showed existing fighters like the F-4 left something to be desired, and also became aware of new Soviet threat aircraft, such as the Mikoyan MiG-25 "Foxbat", that the F-4 could not hope to deal with.
The Air Force saw the FX from the outset as a long-range air-superiority fighter, engaging adversary aircraft from "beyond visual range (BVR)" with AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The fighter would also be capable of close-in combat, and would have a (strictly secondary) strike capability.
The 1968 RFP elaborated on this by specifying a twin-engine, single-seat fighter with a built-in cannon, a ferry range long enough to permit self-deployment to Europe without tanker support, and a top speed of Mach 2.5. There had been a push to specify a two-seat aircraft in the RFP, but the single-seat configuration won out. The Mach 2.5 now seems extreme, a reflection of the infatuation with raw speed that lingered through the 1960s, coupled with fear of being outclassed by the Foxbat and other new Soviet fighters. The RFP also called for self-contained engine starting, good pilot field of view, easy maintenance, and a takeoff weight of no more than 18,150 kilograms (40,000 pounds).
Most American aircraft manufacturers submitted proposals, with the field whittled down to McDonnell Douglas, North American, and Fairchild-Republic by the end of 1968. The competition was won by MDD a year later, on 23 December 1969. The initial contract specified delivery of ten single-seat "F-15A" development machines, sometimes informally referred to as "YF-15As"; two tandem-seat "TF-15As" for operational conversion; and eight "full-scale development (FSD)" F-15A single-seaters. The first ten F-15As were referred to as "Category I" machines, while the following eight F-15As were referred to as "Category II" machines.
* The McDonnell Douglas F-15 design team was led by George Graff, though early design work owed much to Herman Barkey, who had led the design effort for the F-4. Program management was under Don Malvern, also a veteran of the F-4 effort.
The design work was assisted by the construction of three 3/8ths-scale unpowered drone versions of the fighter. These robots were referred to as "remotely piloted research vehicles (RPRVs)" and were taken aloft over Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California by the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) NB-52A carrier aircraft, to be released at high altitude. They would glide back to earth and land with retractable skids on the dry lakebed at Edwards. The RPRVs could also be fitted with a parachute to be "snagged" by a helicopter in flight for recovery.
Each drone weighed 1,099 kilograms (2,425 pounds) and had a length of 7.01 meters (23 feet). They were made of aluminum, wood, and fiberglass and cost only $250,000 USD each. They provided extremely valuable flight data, and the exercise was regarded as highly successful.
The first Category I F-15A was rolled out at Saint Louis on 26 June 1972. It was broken down, loaded onto a Lockheed C-5A cargolifter, flown to Edwards AFB, and then reassembled to perform its first flight on 27 July 1972. MDD chief test pilot Irving Burrows was at the controls and the flight was uneventful. The initial flight of the first two-seater was on 7 July 1973.
All twenty of the test and evaluation machines flew in neat light-blue overall colors, and in the early days of flight testing of the the Category I machines had high-visibility dayglow orange paint applied to the wingtips and other selective elements to make them easier to observe. Many of these machines would go on to have extensive careers in the test and trials role. In 1976, the second TF-15A was painted in patriotic red-white-and-blue colors for the American bicentennial and sent on a world promotional tour, which included an impressive display at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK.
* Manufacture of an initial batch of 30 full-production F-15s was announced on 1 March 1973, leading to initial service delivery in September 1974 and introduction to operational service in January 1976. By this time, the type had acquired its formal name of "Eagle". While formal names have a habit of being ignored by aircrews in favor of less formal and occasionally somewhat rude nicknames, in this case the "Eagle" name appears to have stuck fairly well.
In April 1974, the Air Force ordered the modification of the 17th F-15A built to the "Streak Eagle" configuration, stripping the aircraft of nonessentials, even most of the paint, to set a string of flight records in 1974 and 1975. The Streak Eagle weighed 815 kilograms (1,800 pounds) less than a production F-15A and flew with no more fuel than was safely required to perform a particular flight exercise.
The Streak Eagle effort cost the US taxpayer over $2 million USD, but the Air Force regarded it as money well spent to promote the F-15 program; determine what the machine was really capable of; sell the type to pilots on the front line; and intimidate the Soviets. The Soviets had already been intimidated by the FX program, and as the Streak Eagle broke records held by the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat, saw their worst fears coming true. The USSR pushed on to develop their answer to the F-15, the Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker", and a specially modified Su-27 would eventually take most of the records away from the Streak Eagle.
As far as inspiring the troops went, the Streak Eagle proved what F-15 pilots would soon find out for themselves: nothing then flying could outclimb the Eagle. A total of 355 full production F-15As was built, as well as 57 "F-15Bs", as the two-seater was known in service. No F-15A/Bs were built new for foreign users, but some development machines and USAF aircraft would be passed on to other countries.
* The F-15A is a big aircraft, inescapably given its load and range requirements, featuring a central fuselage with Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-100 turbofans on each side; wedge-shaped clipped wings with a sweep of 45 degrees; all-moving horizontal tailplanes; twin vertical tailfins; and tricycle landing gear.
Each of the two engines provides 65.26 kN (6,650 kgp / 14,670 lbf) maximum
dry thrust and 106 kN (10,800 kgp / 23,830 lbf) afterburning thrust. The
aircraft consists of 37.3% aluminum, 25.8% titanium, and 5.5% steel by
weight, with selective use of composite materials.
MCDONNELL DOUGLAS F-15A EAGLE:
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spec metric english
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wingspan 13.05 meters 42 feet 10 inches
wing area 56.48 sq_meters 608 sq_feet
length 19.43 meters 63 feet 9 inches
height 5.63 meters 18 feet 6 inches
empty weight 12,975 kilograms 28,600 pounds
normal takeoff weight 18,885 kilograms 41,500 pounds
MTO weight 25,400 kilograms 56,000 pounds
max speed at altitude 2,655 KPH 1,650 MPH / 1,435 KT
service ceiling 18,300 meters 60,000 feet
ferry range with tanks 4,630 kilometers 2,880 MI / 2,500 NMI
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The large-area wings, sometimes referred as the "tennis court", give low wing loading and excellent agility for such a big aircraft. They have outboard ailerons and inboard two-position flaps, but there are no high-lift schemes such as leading-edge slats, flaps, or a blown-flaps system, since the big wing provides good low-speed handling without them.
The wings have three spars and the aircraft can still fly even if one of the spars has been shot away. The Eagle's outstanding aerodynamics allow it to stay in the air even with a loss of a substantial portion of a wing. In 1983, one Israeli F-15 actually lost all but a stub of one wing in a mid-air collision during training and managed to still land safely, to be repaired and returned to service. The wings of the prototypes had a slightly wider span than production machines.
A hydraulically-operated airbrake is mounted on the aircraft's spine. It is very large and is sometimes referred to as the "barn door"; apparently development Eagles had a smaller airbrake. The horizontal tailplanes have a notch or "dogtooth" that was introduced in development to cure flutter problems. A single tailfin was considered up to late stage of development, but twin tailfins were judged a better bet in terms of maneuverability and survivability.
All the landing gear has single wheels, with all gear retracting forward. There is a runway emergency arresting hook under the tail just forward of the exhausts. The Eagle features a triple-redundant hydraulic system and a dual-redundant electrical system. Large numbers of access panels are fitted to ease maintenance. The number of lubrication points has been reduced to 202, compared to the F-4's 510, and similar simplifications were obtained with other critical aircraft elements.
* The F-15A's main combat sensor is the long-range Hughes AN/APG-63 coherent pulse-Doppler radar, designed specifically for the Eagle. The AN/APG-63 provides a "look-down / shoot-down" capability to allow the fighter to engage low-altitude targets in "ground clutter", as well as multiple operating modes for air-to-air combat, ground mapping for navigation, and IFF interrogation.
The F-15A also includes a countermeasures suite, including an AN/ALR-56 radar warning receiver (RWR), an AN/ALQ-128 EW warning system, and a Northrop AN/ALQ-135 built-in jamming system. Of course radios and electronics navigation gear, such as TACAN and a Litton AN/ASN-109 inertial navigation system, are also fitted. The pilot flies the machine through an analog electronic "fly by wire (FBW)" system named the "Control Augmentation System (CAS)", though the aircraft can still be flown if the CAS is disabled.
The F-15A's cockpit instrumentation is analog, but features a head-up display (HUD) and "hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS)" controls. The pilot sits on an MDD Escapac IC-7 ejection seat under a blown clamshell canopy that hinges open from the rear. The canopy provides an excellent all-round field of view. Pilots were excited over the cockpit arrangement, which had been designed by a team under MDD engineer Eugene Adams, saying they felt like like they weren't so much sitting in an F-15 as riding on top of it.
* The F-15 features built-in armament in the form of a General Electric (GE) 20 millimeter M61A1 Vulcan six-barreled Gatling-type cannon mounted in the right wingroot, with 920 rounds of ammunition and a rate of fire of 6,000 rounds a minute. Work was performed to develop a 25-millimeter cannon designated the "GAU-7" firing caseless cartridges for the the F-15, but the project was cancelled due to technical difficulties in 1973 after the expenditure of about $100 million USD, and the Air Force fell back to the well-proven and highly effective Vulcan.
There is a centerline stores pylon and a stores pylon under each wing, for a total of three pylons. Typical external stores include:
This gives a maximum total external load of four Sparrows, four Sidewinders, and three external tanks. There is an inflight refueling socket in the left wingroot.
The F-15B has tandem seats, with the back-seater in a raised position to give a better forward view, and a back-hinging clamshell canopy. Dimensions are the same as the F-15A, but the F-15B weighs 364 kilograms (800 pounds) more. The F-15B is fully combat-capable, though it does lack the built-in AN/ALQ-135 jammer of the F-15A.
* Although the first Eagles delivered to the USAF were painted in an overall "air superiority blue" color scheme, much like that applied to the twenty development aircraft, this turned out to be ineffective as camouflage in the gray skies over Europe, and the service quickly turned to a two-tone gray scheme known as "Compass Ghost".
Four "splinter" camouflage schemes, involving angular patterns intended to confuse the outline of the aircraft, were also tested in 1977 but not adopted. The splinter patterns were designed by the well-known aviation artist Keith Ferris. Apparently the exercise led to a legal dispute between Ferris and the Air Force, but the details are unclear.
In any case, pilots were pleased to get their hands on the powerful, fast, and agile F-15, but there were some teething problems to be worked out in service. There were bugs with both the AN/APG-63 radar and the P&W F100 engines. The F100 problems were particularly frustrating, with the Air Force claiming (in public) that they didn't meet specification and that Pratt & Whitney wasn't being responsive in fixing the problems -- while P&W engineers muttered that the problems were largely due to incorrect Air Force maintenance procedures and that the USAF was consistently rejecting proposals for fixes.
Determining the facts in the case is treacherous, something along the lines of being caught in a dispute between two elephants, and basically irrelevant anyway. In the end the problems were resolved and the F100 is now regarded as an outstanding engine. Other improvements have been added to the F-15A/B, as discussed at the end of the next section.
* Even as the F-15A/B was building up numbers in USAF service, MDD engineers were considering a set of comprehensive improvements to the Eagle under the "Production Eagle Package 2000 (PEP-2000)" effort. The result of this exercise, the "F-15C", performed its initial flight on 27 February 1979. An equivalent improved version of the two-seat F-15B, designated the "F-15D", was introduced as well, performing its first flight on 19 June 1979.
With one significant exception, the changes between the F-15A and the F-15C are difficult to spot. Both retain the same general configuration and external payload capability. Changes in the F-15C include:
The CFTs were originally known as "Fuel And Sensor, Tactical (FAST)" packs as there were schemes to use them to carry defense-suppression or reconnaissance payloads as well, but these schemes didn't pan out. The CFTs were initially put through flight trials in 1974 with the second TF-15A.
The changes to the F-15C added about 272 kilograms (600 pounds) to the empty weight. F-15C/Ds began to go into service in the fall of 1979. A total of 408 F-15Cs and 62 F-15Ds were built for the USAF, not counting those built for foreign users (detailed later). As the F-15C/Ds were phased into service, F-15A/Bs were passed on to US Air National Guard (ANG) units.
The F-15C/D was the basis for the Japanese "F-15J/DJ", license-built in Japan by Mitsubishi. The Japanese variants are discussed in the next chapter.
* In the mid-1980s, the USAF began to move forward on a "Multi-Stage Improvement Program II (MSIP II)" effort for the F-15C/D. A similar "MSIP I" was defined for the F-15A/B but abandoned as not cost-effective.
The centerpiece of MSIP II was the advanced AN/APG-70 radar, a next-generation descendant of the AN/APG-63, with the same antenna but much-improved capabilities and a range of operating modes. It featured "low probability of intercept" capabilities, allowing it to sense targets without being picked up by hostile radar warning receivers.
The cockpit layout was also improved, featuring:
The MSIP II configuration was initially evaluated on an F-15C in December 1984 and was rolled into production in June 1985. Older F-15C/Ds were gradually upgraded.
* Although the MSIP I update program for the F-15A/B was abandoned, some F-15A/Bs were provided with a subset of the F-15B/C update, featuring such items as the stronger landing gear of the F-15C/D, F100-PW-220E engines, and improved Raytheon AN/APG-63(V)1 radar, discussed later. These updated F-15A/Bs cannot carry conformal fuel tanks.
* A big aircraft like the Eagle is obvious capable of carrying a heavy warload of bombs and other air-to-surface ordnance, and as mentioned the original concept for the aircraft included a secondary strike capability. The Air Force gave up on this idea in 1975.
Early F-15s were delivered with the wiring to carry air-to-surface ordnance, apparently even free-fall nuclear weapons, but the F-15A/B and F-15C/D didn't have the software to support the mission, and the wiring was deleted in later production. Development F-15s were fitted with bomb racks on the centerline pylon and each wing pylon, allowing carriage of, say, six 225 kilogram (500 pound) bombs on each pylon for a total warload of 18 bombs, but such stores were not carried by operational Eagles. Late in Eagle development there was a slogan: "Not a pound for air-to-ground!"
This was probably not so much snobbery as the fact that, having obtained an excellent air-superiority fighter, the Air Force was reluctant to do anything to suggest to Congress that the Eagle could or should be shoe-horned into a multirole configuration that would compromise its air-to-air combat capabilities. Still, something as big and powerful as the F-15 clearly had its potential uses as a strike aircraft, and in the late 1970s MDD went to the USAF with proposals for a "Strike Eagle". The Air Force bought the pitch; in 1978, General Wilbur Creech, head of the USAF Tactical Air Command, ordered a study of the Strike Eagle under the "Enhanced Tactical Fighter (ETF)" program, which later became the "Dual Role Fighter (DRF)" program.
Officially, the DRF was supposed to be a supplement or replacement for the F-111, but it seems Creech was more concerned about possible problems with the development program for the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter and was after an alternative. While Congress traditionally takes a skeptic's viewpoint on the armed services shopping around for new weapons when items that seem like solutions are available or in the pipeline, the F-117 was so secret that very few politicians or Washington bureaucrats knew about it.
Although the F-111 had a nightmarish development history, the F-111F was an excellent aircraft, and initially the DRF study recommended the purchase of more F-111Fs. However, for reasons that were a bit controversial, the final result was a recommendation to acquire the Strike Eagle or some other new aircraft instead.
In any case, MDD used their own funds to modify the hard-working second TF-15A to Strike Eagle configuration, performing its first flight in that configuration on 8 July 1980. The Air Force then conducted a competition between the Strike Eagle and the General Dynamics "F-16F" (better known as the "F-16XL"), a heavily modified stretched F-16 with a "cranked arrow" double-delta wing.
The Strike Eagle was joined in the effort by an F-15C and F-15D configured for various specific trials, and MDD won the USAF contract on 24 February 1984, leading to a production order for the "F-15Es". Although the F-16XL was an excellent aircraft, the USAF judged that the Strike Eagle was a less risky option and that its twin-engine configuration made it more survivable than the single-engine F-16XL.
The first production "F-15E" performed its first flight on 11 December 1986. It was painted overall charcoal gray, which would become the standard color scheme for the Strike Eagle. Initial delivery to the USAF was on 12 April 1988, leading to initial operational capability in 1989.
The Air Force did not officially adopt the "Strike Eagle" name, but it has survived as at least an informal description of what the machine is. Aircrew have called it the "Beagle (Bomb Eagle)", "Mudhen" (at least partly because of the muddy color), or simply the "E". Apparently not all the nicknames are meant as compliments, since there seems to be a bit of a class snobbery among USAF pilots, with the strike role held in lower esteem than air-superiority. One other nickname, "WartEagle", seems clearly snide, comparing the F-15E to the slow, unarguably ugly (if extremely effective and tough) Fairchild A-10 "Warthog" close-support aircraft.
* All F-15Es are two-seaters, with the rear cockpit optimized for a "weapons system operator" -- "WSO" or "whizzo". The F-15E is a true "second generation" Eagle, featuring a number of significant improvements over the F-15C/D, including:
In the back seat, the WSO's dashboard has four CRT MFDs in a row, including two of the larger Kaiser monochrome MFDs in the center and one of the smaller Sperry color MFDs on each side. The WSO can select a number of different display modes, including HUD repeater, and has two HOTAS stick controls to direct sensors and weapons. Basic flight controls are also included to allow the back-seater to get the aircraft home should the pilot be disabled. Both the pilot and WSO sit on ACES II ejection seats.
The most significant sensor improvement is the new AN/APG-70 radar, mentioned in the previous section, an improved version of the AN/APG-63 with multiple modes and, in particular, a "synthetic aperture radar (SAR)" capability to permit radar mapping of ground targets for all-weather / day-night strikes. The radar retains full air-combat capability. It has a maximum range in low-resolution mapping mode of almost 300 kilometers (184 miles).
The Strike Eagle demonstrator had actually been fitted with the earlier AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack pod, used by the F-111, but the F-15E did not carry this pod in operational service. One F-15B was also evaluated with the French Thompson-CSF / Martin Marietta ATLIS II pod for experimental trials in 1982.
Although the first 134 production F-15Es retained the F100-PW-220 engines of the F-15C/D, later production featured the substantially uprated F100-PW-229 "Improved Performance Engine (IPE)" turbofan with an improved digital electronic engine control; 79.2 kN (8,070 kgp / 17,800 lbf) max dry thrust; and 129.5 kN (13,150 kpg / 29,000 lbf) afterburning thrust.
Many Strike Eagles with the F110 IPE were fitted with an "Automatic Thrust Departure Prevention System (ATDPS)" that automatically reduced thrust in one engine if another failed, reducing the chance that asymmetric thrust might toss the aircraft into a spin or cause structural damage. ATPDS was introduced because this risk had been enhanced by the installation of the more powerful F110 IPE.
The F-15E was designed to accommodate either the P&W F100 IPE engine or the roughly comparable General Electric F110 IPE engine. The US Air Force has never bought the GE F110 for the F-15, though one F-15E was put through trials with the GE engines. Some sources claim that the GE F110 IPE is substantially more reliable and less maintenance-intensive than the P&W F100 IPE, but this may just be a lingering effect of the controversy over the early service of the F100. There was apparently talk of reengining some in-service F-15Es with the GE F110 IPEs but if so the Air Force did not proceed with that plan.
Conformal fuel tanks are always carried by Strike Eagles. They can be removed, but the Strike Eagle's CFTs have been modified to provide most of the aircraft's stores attachments, making the aircraft much less effective if the tanks are pulled off. Each of these "Dash-4" CFTs features a row of three stub pylons, each capable of carrying a single mid-sized store such as a 225 kilogram (500 pound) bomb, in an upper position, and a continuous rail in a lower position. The rail can be fitted with shackles to carry three mid-sized bombs; two AAMs; or one or two heavy stores.
The heavy stores that can be carried on the lower position include big "bunker buster" LGBs or the B61 "Silver Bullet" nuclear weapon, which has a variable yield that can be set from a few tens to hundreds of kilotonnes of explosive yield. Incidentally, it is unclear if a "Dash-2" CFT was ever actually built, and though a "Dash-3" CFT did reach the trials stage, it did not reach service.
The traditional centerline pylon and single wing pylons, with their side-mounted AAM launch rails, are also retained. Triple ejector racks can be fitted to the wing pylons to carry AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles.
The centerline pylon can be used to carry an AN/AXQ-14 datalink pod to guide electro-optical munitions such as the GBU-15 electro-optic glide bomb (EOGB) series or the similar AGM-130 rocket-boosted bomb. Imagery from the weapon's seeker is relayed back through the pod to the WSO's displays, with the WSO then steering the bomb into the target. The pilot can also use LANTIRN for navigation, as well as perform targeting in a pinch. There is a stub pylon under each engine intake for mounting the two LANTIRN pods. Maximum external load is 11,100 kilograms (24,000 pounds).
* Although the initial requirement for the F-15E envisioned a buy of 392 aircraft, a total of 209 F-15Es was obtained by the USAF from the main production build. This was followed beginning in the late 1990s by three batches of attrition replacement machines totalling 27 aircraft, for a final tally of 236 USAF F-15Es.
The Strike Eagle is highly capable, though critics claim that it cannot carry as much warload as the F-111 it replaces and that its low wing loading gives a bumpy and tiring ride at low level. One F-15 aircrewman responded, if not necessarily with the last word, but certainly persuasively:
The criticisms of the big wing are unfounded. We flew the F-111, which was unbelievably stable at low level. It was a fear for us that the F-15E with its low wing loading was going to be rough, but we've found it surprisingly stable. The big wings make the ride a little bit rougher, but I'd take the old wing loading of this airplane over my old job in terms of capability. You notice it bumps around a little more, but when I can turn around and kill someone because of that same wing, I'll gladly trade it. In the end, I'll take a little bit bumpier ride.
As F-15C/D ended production in 1992, the F-15E has been the basis for new foreign F-15 sales, including the Israeli "F-15I", the Saudi "F-15S", and the South Korean "F-15K". These aircraft are discussed in the next chapter.
* The F-15 has been improved to keep the aircraft current and effective. New weapons have been qualified, including the AIM-120C AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder AAMs; the Global Positioning System (GPS) guided "Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)" and "Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW)" glide bombs; the Harpoon antiship missile; the HARM antiradar missile; and AGM-130 or AGM-142 standoff weapons. JDAM has proven highly popular in recent combat service.
Another very useful item has been a datalink. The JTIDS datalink, as mentioned, was cancelled, but the requirement didn't go away. In the early 1990s the US began a collaborative program with several European nations to begin development of the "Multifunction Information Distribution System -- Low-Volume Terminal (MIDS-LVT)" for the F-15C/D and other aircraft to provide a secure, high-bandwidth datalink for communications between NATO aircraft and other systems.
The F-15E was to receive a less sophisticated unit derived from MIDS-LVT, designated the "Fighter Data Link (FDL or 'Fiddle')", but this was originally a lower priority effort. However, in October 2001, with the need to support the US intervention in Afghanistan, the F-15E jumped to the top of the priority queue. Afghanistan put heavy demands on strike elements while air superiority was barely an issue. The entire Strike Eagle fleet was equipped with FDL in about a year, with the F-15C/D LVT installation lagging well behind. The F-15 community regards the datalink as very valuable, but not necessarily to be used to justify attacks without corroboration from some other source.
A high-bandwidth datalink pod, the "AN/ZSW-1 Improved Data Link Pod (IDLP)" was also fielded for the Strike Eagle in the late 1990s as part of the "Gold Pan" system. The pod links to the aircraft through AN/AXQ-14 EOGB datalink interface and is used to upload targeting data and imagery.
Other improvements include:
The Strike Eagle's LANTIRN pod system has undergone its own series of upgrades, but it is now being replaced by the Lockheed Martin "Sniper XR" pod, a single-pod solution that provides improved sensors with greater zoom capabilities and a stabilization system to allow targeting from greater standoff ranges.
* Although the F-15 is no longer the Air Force's future, it's not going away soon either, and the service is adding more improvements as money and priorities permit.
The AIM-9X Sidewinder AAM is an "off-boresight" missile that can engage a target aircraft without the launch aircraft flying straight at the target to get a "lock" with the missile's heat seeker head. Off-boresight operation instead uses a "helmet-mounted sight" in which the pilot simply looks at the target and indicates that the missile get a lock on it. A "Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS)" was put into production in 2001 and is now being carried by F-15C/D Eagles. The JHMCS can also be used to target other weapons. It is unclear if the Strike Eagle will ever carry the JHMCS.
In early 2002, the USAF authorized implementation of a radar system upgrade for the service's F-15C fighters, replacing existing APG-63 and APG-70 sets with the improved APG-63(V)1, developed by Raytheon and fitted to some F-15A/Bs as mentioned earlier. The APG-63(V)1 provides the same range and sensitivity as the sets it replaces, but it is much more reliable, and also has more computing throughput and memory. The service is also considering fitting the improved radar to their F-15E Strike Eagles.
The USAF is interested in an upgrade of the AN/APG-63 with an "active electronic scanned array (AESA)" system, featuring an antenna that is actually made up of a grid of programmable "transmit-receive (TR)" modules. The modules can be configured to operate in a flexible range of radar operating modes, or perform communications and countermeasures tasks. Several different tasks can actually be performed at once by allocating a subset of the TR modules in the array to each function. An improved AN/APG-63(V)2 AESA radar has been developed, but it has limited functionality, and the Air Force is pushing for a more definitive AN/APG-63(V)3.
* Incidentally, with the acquisition of McDonnell Douglas by Boeing in the late 1990s, the F-15 is now the Boeing F-15, a change that takes a little getting used to.
* There have been a fair number of one-off special modifications of the Eagle. Early on, McDonnell Douglas developed and trialed new lightweight wings, made of graphite-epoxy composite or aluminum-lithium alloy. The new wings were an improvement, but not to the extent that they were ever adopted for production aircraft.
In the early days of the Eagle, McDonnell Douglas tried to promote a reconnaissance version of the aircraft designated the "RF-15", but at the time the USAF was happy with their RF-4C Phantoms and didn't bite. MDD didn't give up, however, and in 1987 the company flew a two-seater (once again, the hard-working second TF-15A) fitted with a "Reconnaissance Technology Demonstrator (RTD)" pod.
The RTD pod was a conformal pack mounted on the aircraft's centerline and could be configured to carry a range of reconnaissance systems. However, the Air Force didn't bite on this concept, referred to as the "F-15(R) Peek Eagle", either. About a decade later, in 1995, an F-15D was fitted with an AN/ASD-10 Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS) pod as an experiment, but the Air Force decided that the F-16 would be their ATARS platform instead.
There has also been talk about using the Eagle in the "suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD)" role, fitted with a "radar homing and warning system (RHAWS)" to detect hostile emitters and destroy them with the AGM-88 HARM missile. Various trials of F-15s fitted with pieces of SEAD gear were performed, but the Air Force also decided to use the F-16 as their HARM carrier.
* The very first two-seater Eagle was modified under the "Short Takeoff Or Landing (STOL) / Maneuverability Technology Demonstrator (SMTD)", which was begun in 1984. As the designation indicates, the intent of the program was to develop an Eagle that didn't require so much runway and featured improved maneuverability.
The aircraft was fitted with canard foreplanes, modified from the horizontal tailplanes of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet; an "automatic landing guidance (ALG)" system; and the glass cockpit and heavier landing gear of the Strike Eagle. The canard fins were mounted at a prominent dihedral of 20 degrees and could be used differentially for flight control, but they were mostly meant to support STOL.
Initial flight of the SMTD was on 7 September 1988, with test pilot Larry Walker at the controls. After 43 test flights, the machine was then fitted with moveable, boxy "vectored thrust" engine exhausts built by Pratt & Whitney. The new exhausts could move up or down by 20 degrees and could operate as thrust reversers. The SMTD performed its first flight in this configuration on 16 May 1989, conducting 95 more test flights up to the end of the program on 12 August 1991.
The SMTD program was judged a success, though its technology was not incorporated into production F-15s. The data obtained by the program was important to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs, however, which were intended to replace the F-15 and F-16 respectively.
After the conclusion of the SMTD program, the same aircraft was then further modified as part of the joint USAF/NASA "F-15B ACTIVE" program. The new configuration retains the canards but features new thrust-vectoring nozzles that can turn 20 degrees in any direction. First flight of the F-15B Active aircraft was in February 1996. Apparently this same aircraft was to be modified for trials for a tailless F-15 under the appropriately named "MANX" program, but details are unclear.
* NASA has also operated "stock" F-15s for research programs:
* One of the more interesting experimental applications of the F-15 has been as a "antisatellite (ASAT)" interceptor. During the early 1980s, F-15s performed tests with an ASAT missile carried on the centerline pylon, with the aircraft going into a climb along a prearranged trajectory to fire the missile at an altitude of 24,400 meters (80,000 feet). The missile then went into space and released a "kill vehicle" that homed in on the orbiting target using an infrared seeker and rammed it, destroying the target through sheer kinetic energy.
The ASAT was based on the Boeing AGM-69 Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM) that had been developed for the B-52 and B-1 bombers. The ASAT had a launch weight of 1,225 kilograms (2,700 pounds) with a length of 5.43 meters (17 feet 10 inches) and could intercept satellites up to altitudes of 965 kilometers (600 miles). The ASAT was seen as much more cost-effective than the "co-orbital" weapons developed by the Soviets and considered by the US, which involved launching a "killer satellite" with a normal satellite booster.
The F-15 was regarded as a good launch platform because of its excellent rate of climb. Following a series of tests, on 13 September 1985 an ASAT-armed F-15A engaged and destroyed the "Solwind P78-1" space science satellite, which had been launched by the US in February 1979. The satellite was well beyond its expected life but it was still returning data, and the project scientists were annoyed and complained loudly.
ASAT technologies have been tested since the beginning of the space race, but politicians have been rightly nervous about deploying them as it would invite retaliation in kind. In fact, the F-15 ASAT tests were largely in response to Soviet ASAT experiments and were at least partly intended to show the USSR that the US could respond if required.
In any case, the F-15 ASAT program never got beyond the test stage, though apparently at least some F-15s retained the wiring to carry the ASAT missile. However, in 2003 the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) conducted a paper study in which the scheme was evaluated as a means of putting light satellite payloads into orbit.
* In the early 1970s, McDonnell Douglas also produced concepts for a carrier-based version of the Eagle designated the "F-15N", or more casually the "Seagle", with arresting hook and heavy landing gear for carrier landings. Some F-15N concepts featured carriage of the US Navy Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix AAM. The Navy, prodded by Congress, looked over the F-15N schemes politely, but that service was working on fielding the Grumman F-14 Tomcat as their BVR interceptor at the time, and there was never really much chance for the F-15N unless the Tomcat program collapsed entirely.
It is worth realizing that this interservice rivalry went both ways to an extent. The USAF had found the McDonnell F-4 Phantom an excellent aircraft, but Air Force blue-suiters had always felt a bit of discomfort over adopting a Navy aircraft as their first-line fighter. The F-15 represented something of a declaration of independence. Very well, Navy officers no doubt felt in response, the Air Force could play with its own toys. The Navy had their Tomcat.
In the 1990s, while the USAF was moving on the F-22 Raptor program, MDD proposed a modernized version of the F-15 for the air superiority mission as a cheaper alternative to the expensive F-22. The improved Eagle was designated the "F-15XX" and was to feature improved performance and "stealthy" characteristics. It only had a chance if the F-22 program collapsed, and despite various difficulties the Air Force pushed ahead with the Raptor program. The F-15XX was a nonstarter.
Other unbuilt variants included the "F-15U", which was an F-15E modified for a United Arab Emirates (UAE) requirement; and the "F-15U (Plus)", which as its name implies was a much more heavily modified version of the F-15U for the UAE requirement, featuring such options as a bigger wing, built-in targeting system, and possibly vectored-thrust exhausts. The MDD proposals didn't make it into the finals of the competition.