Combat Aircraft: Revamped F-15s to Counter Chinese Stealth Fighters

28.04.11

Categorie: Air, Asia, China, David Axe |
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F-15E in Afghanistan. David Axe photo.

F-15E in Afghanistan. David Axe photo.

by DAVID AXE

It was as though the Pentagon knew what was coming — and had prepared.

On Christmas Day, Chinese government censors allowed the first photos of a new stealth warplane prototype to surface on the Internet. For two weeks, a cascade of increasingly detailed snapshots and videos dispelled early assertions that the fighter might be a mock-up or a digital fake, the product of a misinformation campaign.

On Jan. 11, the black-painted fighter made its first, short test flight. By then, the consensus among foreign observers was that the large warplane with the angular nose and canards was in fact the long-awaited J-20, one of two low-observable next-generation fighters in development for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

By the time of the J-20’s debut, the Pentagon was already investing in methods of countering the Chinese stealth fighter.

Perhaps unsurprising in light of flattening budgets, the Pentagon’s plan does not rely on prolonging production of Lockheed Martin’s $130-million-a-copy F-22A Raptor beyond the currently-programmed 187 examples. “The Air Force has to make do with what it has,” Lockheed consultant Loren Thompson said. “That’s mainly the F-15 for many missions.”

To that end, most of the Air Force’s 250 1980s-vintage Boeing F-15C/D Eagles are getting new sensors and other improvements. The result is a “new” F-15 that will retain the old designation, but boast potentially decisive counter-stealth capabilities.

What’s Past is Prologue
In tapping the F-15 for counter-stealth duty, the Air Force is acknowledging the limitations of low-observability … and the inherent strengths of the Eagle’s now-classic design.

True, the F-22 has a miniscule frontal radar cross-section compared to the completely non-stealthy F-15C/D, which is often described as having the radar cross-section of a barn door. But to achieve its low observability, the F-22 designs trades volume and payload for shape and clean lines. To remain stealthy, the angular F-22 cannot carry missiles or fuel tanks underwing; this limits it to internal fuel plus six AIM-120 radar-guided missiles and two of the infrared-homing AIM-9s, all carried in enclosed bays.

By contrast, the F-15′s design emphasizes internal volume and heavy external payload. The Eagle can carries up to eight AIM-120s plus drop tanks, equating to a longer range and greater combat endurance in a beyond-visual-range missile battle.

Moreover, the Eagle has a more capacious nosecone than the F-22 and can carry a larger radar antenna. The larger the radar, the more power it can generate and the more likely it is to detect stealthy targets such as the J-20 at long range. The latest Airborne Electronically Scanned Array radars, which feature many independently radiating modules inside a single nosecone, further increase a fighter’s ability to spot and track small targets.

The F-22 already carries Northrop Grumman’s APG-77 AESA radar. Beginning in 2000, the Air Force installed the larger APG-63(V)2 AESA, built by Raytheon, on 18 F-15Cs belonging to the 3rd Wing in Alaska. Those 18 jets, which in 2007 moved to the 18thWing at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, represented operational prototypes for a fleet-wide upgrade beginning last year.

In April 2010, the Florida Air National Guard received its first F-15C fitted with Raytheon’s APG-63(V)3 AESA; in  December, four similarly-equipped F-15s joined the V2 jets already at Kadena. The Air Force plans to have 54 AESA F-15s in Okinawa by 2013, against a total fleet of 176 F-15C/Ds fitted new radars over the next decade.

In January, Gates announced he would accelerate by several years the installation of the new radars, using funds saved by eliminating redundant Air Force headquarters and staffs. The radars and other upgrades would keep the F-15s “viable well into the future,” Gates said.

In essence, the upgraded F-15s will pack on missiles and fuel and fly with radars blaring, spotting opponents through sheer, electronic brute force, while F-22s shut down their sensors and, perhaps guided by the Eagle pilots, circle around the enemy’s flanks. “Our objective is to fly in front with the F-22s, and have the persistence to stay there while the [F-22s] are conducting their [low-observable] attack,” Giggy said.

It’s a surprising and potentially risky plan — but one that, with its relatively low cost (just $8 million per new AESA radar), could protect the financing for America’s planned fleet of 2,400 F-35 fighter-bombers, due to begin entering service in 2016. Transforming F-15s in to stealth-killers hinges on the 1970s- and ‘80s-vintage Eagles lasting for decades longer than original planned.

Eagles Forever
When purchased, the F-15 was intended to last just 4,000 flight hours — in other words, until the early 1990s. With fatigue testing, the Air Force extended this deadline several times — first to 8,000 hours, then to 12,000. At today’s flying rates, most of the roughly 250 surviving F-15C/Ds will expire around 2025.

Most of the hard work of upgrading the Eagle’s systems and sustaining its airframe for at least another 15 years falls to the Eagle Division of the Aerospace Sustainment Directorate at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. A team of around 125 engineers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio design the upgrades; the 212 workers at Robins’ Eagle Division, commanded by Col. Gerald Swift, do all the actual installation work, while another 650 technicians at Robins perform depot maintenance on as many as 70 USAF F-15 C-, D- and E-model Eagles every year.

“On the modernization side, our dollars specifically for F-15Cs and Ds are going into radar upgrades with the APG-63(V)3 AESA, an improved operational flight program to complement that radar capability, a new computer and displays in the light grays [F-15Cs and Ds, as opposed to the dark gray-painted F-15Es] and we’re also upgrading the communications suite,” Swift told Combat Aircraft.

The V3 radar is a recent addition to the Eagle and Swift’s people still haven’t perfected procedures for installing and maintaining the new sensor. At the moment, Raytheon contractors do most of that work. “AESAs? Not yet,” Swift admitted. “Today, we have lines primarily to support the V0 and V1 versions of the APG-63.”

“But,” he added, “we are upgrading our facilities in anticipation of being able to take on that work half a decade from now.”

On the strictly structural side, Swift’s people provide comprehensive services. “We have probably the Air Force’s best aircraft structural improvement program today,” Swift boasted. “We put a great deal of effort into understanding the critical structural points, tracking component throughout the fleet on a tail-by-tail basis, tracking flight hours … we’re doing one full aircraft tear-down on a C- and E-model, and we’re investing in two full-scale test fatigue rigs [at Boeing's facility] in St. Louis.”

The result of that attention to detail is a structurally healthy F-15 fleet — a state of affairs that might have seemed impossible just four years ago, when a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C disintegrated in mid-air, nearly killing the pilot.

After that incident, the Air Force grounded the F-15 fleet, fearing that the jet had simply become too old to fly safely. But a subsequent investigation proved that manufacturing errors related to the jet’s longerons caused the loss of structural integrity: it wasn’t a fatigue-life issue. The Eagles returned to the air.

“Right now, there is nothing life-limiting on the F-15,” Swift said. “It is a very well-designed platform.” For planning purposes, the Air Force foresees retiring the F-15C/D in 2025 and the E-model a decade later. “But those are just planning factors,” Swift stressed.

With the F-22 fleet constrained to fewer than 200 aircraft, the Air Force has little choice but to rely on upgraded and carefully maintained F-15s for decades to come. But the Eagle’s enormous fuel capacity and weapons payload, and its ability to fit a large AESA radar, make it more than a mere stopgap. Despite its age, the upgraded F-15 is arguably the most potent counter-measure to the J-20 and other stealthy rivals — especially when working in concert with F-22s.

“We know that we may not be the sexiest fighter platform out there,” Swift said. “But we certainly are the backbone of the USAF fleet for a long time to come.”

Read the full story in Combat Aircraft.

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26 Responses to “Combat Aircraft: Revamped F-15s to Counter Chinese Stealth Fighters”

  1. Alejandro says:

    Although I agree that the use of upgraded F-15′s to fill in as an active stop gap due to the delays of the F-35 program is an excellent idea I have some reservations over the rest of the military’s aviation strategic theory.

    The F-22 and F-35 both lack the range necessary for a strike mission with the J-20 defending should the U.S. launch a counter attack as a retaliation for what is perceived to be a Chinese surprise attack on Okinawa or Taiwan. That task is to be designated to the B-52 as well as Tomahawk equipped Ohio Class submarines.

    Yet all the alternative primary long range strike aircraft in the U.S. arsenal (F-111′s, A-7′s, and to a certain extent F-14′s) have been retired as a result of the perceived antiquity of the designs.

    In comparison to alternative military’s the United States is already facing a Strike aircraft shortfall relying on drones and helicopters for the majority of its ground attack roles. Both of which are highly vulnerable to high intensity conflicts and cannot function in all weather conditions.

    My question is though the United States is worried of a fighter shortfall, will the lack of the concrete development of a modern Surface to Air missile defense system and formidable Strike Aircraft (I mean a plane that could pull of a true long range (+750 Nautical Mile combat radius) all weather bombing mission with multiple Mk 84 bombs) simply give the Chinese a tactical upper hand?

    Deploying Strategic Bombers and Nuclear Submarines would only escalate a conflict that nether side wishes to see.

  2. [...] F-15s meeting our needs and hey, there isn’t much to worry about? Interesting theory, but here are a few thoughts. “…detect stealthy targets such as the J-20 at long [...]

  3. WarLord says:

    J-20? Perhaps vs F-35? In an age of asymetrical warfare and drones, we might as well be discussing steam powered dirigibles.

  4. geogen says:

    Thanks to Eric’s blog for referencing this post. I wouldn’t have otherwise come across this interesting topic here.

    And fwiw, I just noticed the top page advert for the A-29 Super Tucano! In my opinion, it’s a very practical and legitimate aircraft worth considering by a service such as, let’s say… the USMC. Interesting.

    Anyway, my feedback on this particular F-15 news update would truly have to start off by suggesting: 1) Defense planners NOT announce (or Hype) actual future tactics and corresponding technical aspects and methods of newly integrated systems accordingly. Leave it more vague and ambiguous as a normal, standard modernization upgrade and leave it at that!?! And 2) I would wish that any US official line, refrain from actual ‘us vs them’ scenarios and contingencies (i.e. naming names) when discussing various policy measures publicly. Again, leave things ambiguous and general, as a normal modernization capability and deterrence stopgap this or that, etc. That can in fact help to reduce confusion and perceived provocation across the board and in turn tone down general antagonisms, which only complicate issues more. imho.

    That said, the F-15 C/E is indeed now forced by default (e.g., F-22 program shutting down with only 80x block 35 Raptors built and the high-cost F-35 Program facing significant restructuring) to incorporate extensive, custom modernizations and endure expensive life-extension maintenance, in order to keep USAF’s TACAIR credible for the next 15 yrs.

    Yet an even more capable, superior new-build F-15E+ model complete with the latest APG-82, LW IRST pod, two-crew and EW/EA systems, would by 2015 arguably be USAF’s optimal force-multiplying, short-fall stopgap. (let alone F-22′s best team in defense).

  5. [...] effectively cuts in half the Air Force’s dogfighting fleet, which also includes around 250 older, Boeing-made F-15Cs. Raptors can still fly on urgent “national security directed missions,” but routine [...]

  6. [...] and Guam ? effectively cuts in half the Air Force?s dogfighting fleet, which also includes around 250 older, Boeing-made F-15Cs. Raptors can still fly on urgent ?national security directed missions,? but routine patrols and [...]

  7. Ryan says:

    F-35 radar and jammers are outa this world. Chinese j20 would go down by the dozens and until they see combat who knows of it’s capabilities. The aim-9 missile doesn’t look good for em tho, not to mention lasers mounted on carriers and subs. The us isn’t dumb.

  8. Nameless says:

    Chinese won’t ever fight us fighters unless they tried to invade china. The yanks aren’t that dumb and the new Chinese carrier being built would be the 1st target. The us has weapons that would keep you up at night. There not to be fucked with, even if there tellin the world what to do. I don’t see us the uk or French pussies do too much.

  9. Jenning says:

    You are mighty full of us capabilitites mate but you are accurate. One Ohio class sub off chinas coast is a bigger threat then the Chinese navy.

  10. [...] far, a Air Force has usually ever fielded a few hundred secrecy aircraft, requiring it to constantly upgrade some nonstealthy fighters. But a drifting bend skeleton to squeeze some-more than 1,700 F-35s (at [...]

  11. fuzzybeard2016 says:

    If the USAF really wants to continue this “Back To The Future” trend, why take a fresh look at the F-4 Phantom II? The F-4 is still in service with several nations, including Germany.

  12. [...] far, the Air Force has only ever fielded a few hundred stealth aircraft, requiring it to constantly upgrade some nonstealthy fighters. But the flying branch plans to purchase more than 1,700 F-35s (at more [...]

  13. [...] But another “rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more “event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes — the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace — must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  14. [...] But another “rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more “event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes – the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace – must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  15. [...] But another “rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more “event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes — the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace — must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  16. [...] But another „rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more „event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes – the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace – must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  17. [...] But another “rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more “event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes — the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace — must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  18. [...] But another “rebaselining,” or restructuring, is likely in the wake of the Quick Look Review. F-35 testing and production should be less concurrent and more “event-based,” the panelists advised. In other words, the program should worry less about meeting hard deadlines and more about getting the jet’s design right. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. Major production must wait, even if that means older warplanes — the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace — must stay on the front line longer. [...]

  19. [...] upgrades along with structural enhancements — new wiring is the current focus — should see the F-15 through another 20 years of [...]

  20. [...] after 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter [...]

  21. [...] after 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter [...]

  22. [...] 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter [...]

  23. [...] after 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter [...]

  24. [...] 187 units — half as many as the Air Force said it needed — the flying branch committed to keeping 250 F-15Cs in service until 2025 at the earliest. Pilots began developing team tactics for the two fighter [...]

  25. […] far, the Air Force has only ever fielded a few hundred stealth aircraft, requiring it to constantly upgrade some nonstealthy fighters. But the flying branch plans to purchase more than 1,700 F-35s (at more […]

  26. […] effectively cuts in half the Air Force’s dogfighting fleet, which also includes around 250 older, Boeing-made F-15Cs. Raptors can still fly on urgent “national security directed missions,” but routine […]

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