Time-Tested and Formidable: The F-15 Eagle Continues to Dominate the Skies

The F-15 Eagle, legendary for its supremacy in aerial dogfights, was considered the undisputed king of the skies. Until the advent of its replacement, the F-22 Raptor, the F-15 stood as the U.S. Air Force’s preeminent air superiority fighter. Even today, a modernized Eagle is still considered a formidable opponent, and manufacturer Boeing has proposed updated versions that could keep the aircraft flying for the better part of a century.

The F-15 Eagle – the American hunter:

The F-15 traced its roots to the air war in Vietnam, where its awe-inspiring performance and the indomitable spirit of American Air Force and Navy fighters prevailed against their North Korean counterparts. Large numbers of American fighter pilots, assigned to tackle both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, were perfectly suited for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, performing superbly against their smaller, less powerful, but more maneuverable North Vietnamese counterparts. The 13:1 kill ratio against North Vietnamese MiG aircraft in the Korean War dropped to an abysmal 1.5 to 1 kill ratio in Vietnam.

 

Counterinsurgency fighters, such as the F-4 Phantom, had been designed under the assumption that the air-to-air missile had rendered dogfights obsolete, and with them the need for superiority maneuverability and a gun for air combat. The U.S. Air Force decided it needed a dedicated air superiority fighter, one that combined two powerful engines, a powerful radar, a large number of missiles, and a gun. Above all, it had to be maneuverable enough to win a dogfight.

The Air Force issued a request for proposals for the new FX fighter in 1966, and no fewer than six companies submitted competing papers for designs. No prototypes were built. The air service selected McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) in 1969, beginning full-scale development plans.

 

The F-15 was a formidable aircraft. Early versions were powered by two Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-100 afterburning turbofan engines, producing 14,500 pounds of static thrust—23,500 with afterburners. This gave the aircraft a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one, making it so powerful that it was the first fighter to exceed the speed of sound in vertical flight. The F-15 had so much thrust it could climb to sixty-five thousand feet in just 122 seconds. In horizontal flight, the F-15 could reach speeds of Mach 2.5, and cruise at speeds of Mach 0.9.

The Eagle’s AN/APG-63 nose-mounted radar was the most advanced of its day, a solid-state radar with “look down/shoot down” capability and a range of up to 200 miles. This allowed the F-15 to pick out enemy emissions on radar against the clutter generated by the ground. The radar was also the first to incorporate a programmable system processor, which allowed moderate upgrades to be done via software and not intensive hardware updates.

 

The Eagle was originally armed with four radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles for long-range engagements and four AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles for short-range engagements. During the Vietnam War, USAF F-4C Phantoms, lacking a dedicated gun, missed several opportunities to down enemy aircraft. This deficiency was rectified in the F-15 by equipping the plane with an internal M61 Vulcan twenty-millimeter Gatling gun.

The F-15 was also designed with long-range endurance in mind. Carrying three external fuel tanks, the F-15 had a range of three thousand miles, making it possible to fly from the continental United States to Europe without stopping or mid-air refueling. This would make it possible to quickly reinforce NATO air defenses in case of a crisis in Europe and could even permit the Air Force to rapidly dispatch F-15s to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.

 

The first F-15 prototypes flew in 1972 and saw operational service in 1973. The plane rapidly gained popularity with the U.S. Air Force and foreign air forces, including Israel, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. The F-15 achieved its first air-to-air kill on January 27, 1979, when Israeli Air Force pilot Moshe Melnik shot down a Syrian Air Force MiG-21 in his F-15A. Melnik would go on to claim four air-to-air victories, including both F-15As and F-15Cs, for a total of eleven enemy fighter aircraft shot down.

Melnik’s kill marked the beginning of a remarkable streak of 104 consecutive air-to-air victories for the F-15, with not a single Eagle loss. Israeli, Saudi, and American F-15s were responsible for this impressive record. Israeli kills included engagements between 1979 and 1982, which involved Syrian MiG-25 Foxbats interceptors, MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters, as well as ground attack and strike aircraft. During the 1991 Gulf War, the American and Saudi tally included Iraqi MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, Mirage F-1 fighters, and even an Il-76 “Candid” medium transport aircraft.

One F-15E Strike Eagle even scored an air-to-air kill against an Iraqi Mi-24 attack helicopter, equipped with a laser-guided bomb. This event showcased the F-15’s versatility in engaging a wide range of aerial threats.

 

The F-15A underwent significant upgrades in the form of the F-15C, including the incorporation of a new AN/APG-70 synthetic aperture radar and new F100-PW-220 engines. The latest program, known as “Golden Eagle,” stressed tests of F-15Cs for wear and tear, with 178 of the planes in the best physical condition equipped with the recently received new APG-63V3 electronically scanned array radars and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, enabling rapid target acquisition with advanced guided missiles.

In the late 1980s, the F-15E was developed to supplement and eventually replace the aging F-111 fighter-bomber as a penetrative, high-speed tactical strike aircraft designed to strike deep behind enemy lines in a NATO or Warsaw Pact war in Europe. The F-15E was modified to add conformal fuel tanks to increase range with a heavy bomb payload, the APG-63 radar, and a LANTRIN forward-looking infrared pod. With the retirement of the F-111, the F-15E “Strike Eagle” became the USAF’s primary tactical fighter-bomber.

 

The USAF retired its last F-15 in 2001, but foreign sales have kept Boeing’s production line humming since. The company has twice in recent years tried to attract the interest of the Air Force, first with the semi-stealthy Silent Eagle in 2010. In 2016, Boeing once again introduced a new F-15, the Eagle 2040C. The Eagle 2040C is designed to carry up to sixteen AIM-120D AMRAAM radar-guided missiles, more than four times the original number. The Talon datalink would allow the upgraded design to network with the F-22 Raptor. One component of operation would have the stealthy—but relatively short on firepower—F-22 flying among enemy aircraft, passing on targeting information to an Eagle 2040C acting as a flying missile battery.

 

Today, the USAF still employs around 177 upgraded F-15C and two-seater D models, along with approximately 224 F-15E strike Eagles. F-15s are deployed in forward bases in both Europe and Asia, mostly notably at RAF Lakenheath in the UK and Kadena Air Force Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Japanese F-15Js also operate from Okinawa and were actively involved in an aerial intercept in June 2016 with Chinese Su-30 Flanker fighters. F-15Es are currently stationed at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, where they actively participate in the air campaign against the Islamic State. In a world still dominated by fourth-generation fighter jets, the F-15 is an aging, but formidable, fighter. The lack of sufficient numbers of F-22 Raptors to replace the Eagle has delayed the fighter’s retirement, and it now trains to complement the F-22 in the battlefield. The lack of a current, viable replacement means it will be at least until the early 2030s before the remaining C and E model Eagles are retired. The F-15 airframe in all its flavors will almost certainly spend an impressive half-century in active service, a testament to its enduring capabilities as a frontline U.S. Air Force fighter.

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