The Mcdonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and its subsequent variants have served as America’s workhorse intercept fighters for over 40 years.
For a short time, it seemed as though the F-15 would fade into history as it was being replaced by its stealthy successor, the F-22 Raptor. But the F-22 program ended and its supply chain was cannibalized to support F-35 production.
America’s relatively small fleet of fifth generation air superiority fighters isn’t large enough to replace the venerable F-15. Instead, Uncle Sam has agreed to purchase more fourth generation F-15s to replace those quickly aging out of service.
So what is it about the F-15 that’s so special that America’s Air Force can’t seem to get enough of them? Quite a bit, actually.
It’s the fastest fighter jet in America’s arsenal
Although the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter tends to garner most of the headlines, the F-15Cs and F-15Ds currently run by the US Air Force actually beat out the F-35 in a handful of crucial air-combat metrics.
The F-35, it’s important to note, wasn’t designed to serve as a dedicated dog fighter: It was built to engage ground targets primarily. The F-15, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up to go toe to toe with the best Soviet fighters in the sky – and back then Russian fighters were really something to be feared.
The F-15’s top speed, of slightly over Mach 2.4 or 1,875 mph, is the subject of a bit of debate, as many claim the powerful fighter can go even faster. Either way, it leaves platforms like the F-35 – with a top speed of just 1,230 mph or so – in its dust.
Even the top-of-the-line F-22 can only achieve Mach 2.2. This gives the F-15 the crown of America’s fastest fighter jet.
It’s got serious range
While the US Navy struggles to find ways to increase the operational range of its carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters to stretch carrier ops further away from Chinese anti-ship ship missiles, the Air Force’s F-15s are boasting around three times the range of their Navy peers when flying with their three external fuel tanks.
In total, the F-15 can cover around 3,000 nautical miles without needing to refuel. Thanks to its inflight refueling capabilities, it could feasibly even stay airborne and in the fight for as long as the pilot, and its ordnance, last.
It’s got a perfect combat record
Despite being in operation for over four decades and serving in the air forces of not just the United States, but also Japan, Israel, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Qatar, no F-15 has ever been shot down by an opposing force.
Unlike the F-35 and F-22, which rely on stealth to avoid detection and therefore, engagement, the F-15 has never been sneaky.
Without stealth to protect the aircraft from opposing fighters or ground-based air defenses, F-15 pilots have had to rely on tactics, skill and speed to outmaneuver or entirely avoid enemy contact.
This article was originally published on January 2, 2020.
His last engagement of the war saw him go up against eight enemy Mirage F1s over Iraq in 1988. He scored two unconfirmed kills but was badly shot up in the dogfight and had to break off. He was able to fly back to his base in Iran and the war ended that very same year.
He received the Order of Fath 2nd Class for his time in the skies over enemy territory. The Fath Medal is one of the highest awards an Iranian military member can receive and is personally presented by the Supreme Leader.
Jalil Zandi’s 11 kills in the F-14 make him the highest-scoring Tomcat pilot ever. Zandi died in a car accident near Tehran in 2001, having reached the rank of brigadier general.
The F-14 was retired from the US military arsenal in 2006 but is still in use in Iran.
The US Air Force’s desire to radically reshape and accelerate the way it develops future fighter planes could propel China to ramp up its plans for next-generation aircraft, Chinese experts said.
A military insider familiar with China’s next-generation aircraft project said Chinese aircraft designers were keeping a close eye on anything disclosed by their American counterparts about NGAD, or the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme.
If implemented, NGAD would create a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons, with jets and autonomous drones fighting side by side rather than as a single-aircraft platform or technology.
“China has also planned to develop a next-generation aircraft, but so far just specifically for the air force not for the navy, calling it a ‘background plane,'” said the insider, who requested anonymity.
“Because of a lack of reflection standards and relevant parameters, there are doubts around the development progress of the background plane.”
The US has announced two next-generation programmes: NGAD for the Air Force, and the F/A-XX for the Navy, a long-term plan to develop next-generation ship-borne aircraft to complement and eventually replace the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters.
The fighter is one of at least two sixth-generation jets being developed by US contractors to maintain the USAF’s technological edge, according to the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan released in 2016.
At a US Air Force Association symposium last week, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force needed to have its next-generation air dominance fighter soon if it wanted to compete with China.
“What I don’t know – and we’re working with our great partners – is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us,” he said.
“We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we’ve had as a nation to have that leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Chinese aircraft designers would welcome US Air Force efforts to speed up the launch of NGAD fighters.
“Before making the direction of new aircraft, Chinese aircraft designers should clarify the parameters of their rival aircraft, especially the American fighters, including their combat range, speed, flying height and other dogfight capabilities, for basic reference,” he said.
The F-22 entered service in 2005, while China’s J-20 was launched in 2011 and formally joined the PLA Air Force in 2017. But China has failed to produce the WS-15 tailor-made engine designed for the J-20 fighters, and must still use the Russian AL-31F engine and its lesser home-made version, the WS-10C.
Steve Burgess, an aircraft specialist at the US Air War College, said the NGAD was aimed at developing a new fighter for the 2020s, a move to further reinforce the status of the US military as the global leader, as well as widen the gap between China and his country.
“Engine design problems will continue to hold China back [in their next-generation aircraft development programme],” he said, adding that Chinese aircraft technology still failed to threaten the US.
But Song Zhonging, a former PLA instructor, said China’s defence industry had more “privileges” than the US in terms of funding, compared with the strict budget approval process in the US.
US Congress has approved US$904 million of the Air Force’s US$1 billion request in the 2021 financial year, a sign of limited support by American lawmakers. In the 2020 financial year, the service received US$905 million for the programme.
Because of the high cost of an F-22 – about US$250 million – the last one was delivered in 2012. Amid criticism from taxpayers, the Pentagon decided to develop the inferior and lower-cost single-engine F-35 Lightning, for more than US$1 trillion over the 60-year lifespan of the programme, making it the most expensive weapons project in the American military.
“Thanks to the increasing pressure from the US … that has encouraged Chinese leadership to pour and mobilise all resources and manpower to strengthen the country’s defence industry,” Song said.
Russia has announced that the country’s two aerospace juggernauts Mikoyan (MiG) and JSC Sukhoi have joined hands to build a conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet, the MiG-41 interceptor, under the PAK DP programme.
Western European countries are trying to develop their own new-generation aircraft such as the Future Combat Air System and Tempest fighters.
According to a recent story published in Naval News, for the first time, the power module for the F-35C Lightning II multirole combat aircraft has been delivered by a CMV-22B Osprey to an aircraft carrier at sea, the USS Carl Vinson.
The engine was an F-135 Power Module, which is common to all three variants of the F-35 aircraft.
To the casual observer, this may not seem like an event of much importance, but for the Navy and the Marine Corps that fly the plane, this is a very big deal.
It is said that when it comes to the art of war, amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. And the F-35 coming into naval service created some unique logistical challenges for the Navy and Marine Corps.
There are some 500 F-35s currently in service building to a peak strength of over 2,400. While the F-35 holds out the promise of incredible performance and combat capability, none of that will matter if these aircraft cannot be sustained while operating at sea.
One of the major problems was that the hot exhaust of the F-35’s engine tended to melt the flight decks of the ships they were landing on. The same problem existed with the V-22 Osprey and its engine nacelles when in the vertical position. The Navy solved that problem by making the decks more heat-resistant.
The F-35 also incorporates an automated parts system that tracks every component installed on this enormously complex aircraft to keep track of its performance and durability. This system has also been plagued with data-entry problems that are still being worked out.
This is in no way unique to the introduction of a new aircraft into the Navy or Air Force. You can plan very carefully to take all factors into account, but logging hours with the F-35 in the real world is necessary to find problems no one ever thought of. One of those problems for the F-35 was engine swaps.
The Lightning II uses the Pratt and Whitney F-135 Power Module designed to be unplugged and removed from the aircraft. It is then shipped as a single unit to a maintenance facility ashore to be overhauled and then returned to the squadrons as a spare.
Building a fleet of F-35s is pricey, but their construction cost isn’t the only cost involved. To keep these planes flying and fighting requires a very long and expensive logistics “tail” of spare parts and engines. This is why about 70% of the Navy’s weapons budget is just for the sustainment of the weapons it already has.
When it comes to the F-35C and its modular powerplant, the Navy needed to buy hundreds of spare engines that need to be replaced after a certain number of running hours are logged. The problem was how to get them out to the aircraft carriers that have Lightning squadrons.
The F-135 Power Module is a beast in terms of weight and size. It’s over 4,500 pounds and too large to fit into the cargo bay of the ancient C-2A Greyhounds. Further, you cannot just slam the F-35C’s engine onto the deck during a carrier landing and not expect it to be damaged. In contrast, the Osprey will be able to land vertically with a minimum of shock and vibration to the Power Module.
Now here is why this rather mundane delivery of an F-35C engine to the Vinson matters so much: If the F-35C is fully sustainable at sea the Navy can roughly double its carrier strike capability and give the Marine Corps the ability to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability without needing a Carrier Strike Group to help them.
Using the fleet’s current amphibious landing ships with flight decks the Navy could put to sea with 24-25 aircraft carriers flying variants of the F-35, instead of just 12 supercarriers. And for Marines landing ashore, it would be its own F-35B in the VTOL variant providing not just close air support for troops on the beach but also a deep inland strike capability.
There are still other logistical problems to be worked out. For example, Navy ships and resupply vessels need larger electric motors and specialized skids to sling the power module during replenishment-at-sea operations, and an Osprey variant that can do in-flight refueling for the F-35 is badly needed.
But being able to fly 1,000 miles out to sea and gently land the power module for these aircraft brings us much closer to the game-changer that the Lightning II aircraft promised to be at its inception.
February 2 was the 47th anniversary of the first official test flight for the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Designed by General Dynamics in the 1970s, the Falcon – or the Viper, as it is commonly and affectionately known by its American pilots – quickly became one of the best fighter jets in history.
Its lightweight, powerful engines, and groundbreaking electronics gave it an edge over almost all of its contemporary adversaries. Its modular airframe proved so adaptable that over a dozen different versions of the fighter have been made since its first flight.
About 4,600 F-16s have been built since 1974, and the fighter is currently in service with 26 countries.
The ‘fighter mafia’
The F-16 came about as a result of requests from a group known as the “fighter mafia,” a group of Air Force officers and civilian defense analysts who were unsatisfied with the performance of the F-4 Phantom II in Vietnam, and believed that the Air Force’s emphasis on larger, heavier fighters armed only with missiles was a mistake.
What was needed, they argued, was a cost-effective fighter jet that was small, lightweight, fast, and highly maneuverable. The need for a cheaper and lighter fighter grew when the operating costs of the new F-15 became apparent.
In 1969, after intense lobbying, the group was able to secure funding for the Lightweight Fighter program. By 1974, two prototype models from two companies were shown to the Air Force: the YF-16 from General Dynamics and the YF-17 from Northrop Grumman.
The YF-16 was selected as the winner in 1975, though the YF-17 would eventually see service with the Navy and Marine Corps as the F/A-18. By 1980, F-16s were in service with the US Air Force as well as with NATO members Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway.
A modern design
The Falcon featured a number of new technologies and systems that put it above its competitors. Its engine could push it to twice the speed of sound, and the cropped delta wings gave it incredible maneuverability, including the ability to pull 9g turns – the first US fighter to do so.
The bubble canopy gave the pilot unobstructed forward and upward vision and improved side and rear vision. The cockpit seat-back angle, set at 30 degrees instead of the usual 13, increased pilot comfort and gravity force tolerance, enabling high-g turns and maneuvers.
The F-16 was the first production aircraft to replace manual flight controls with a digital “fly-by-wire” system, increasing response time and pilot control. It also featured side-stick controls with a hands-on throttle-and-stick set up, giving better ergonomics and allowing the pilot to fly and perform multiple functions at the same time.
Brand-new radar systems and electronics, like concurrent head-mounted and heads-up display, enabled pilots to track and engage enemy aircraft quickly and efficiently with its large arsenal: up to 17,000 pounds of air-to-air missiles and bombs mounted on 11 hardpoints, as well as a 20 mm Vulcan rotary cannon.
A long service record
The F-16’s combat debut was with the Israeli Air Force, shooting down a pair of Syrian Mi-8 helicopters in April 1981 and a MiG-21 in July that year.
On June 7, 1981, the Israelis showed the F-16 could conduct airstrikes, when, during Operation Opera, they destroyed Iraq’s unfinished Osirak nuclear reactor. In one engagement in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War, Israeli F-16s shot down 44 Syrian aircraft, 11 more than the Israeli F-15s that took part in the battle.
The F-16 saw combat in American service for the first time during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when 249 Air Force F-16s flew over 13,000 sorties, more than any other aircraft during the campaign. Only seven were lost, three to enemy fire.
The Desert Storm missions were mostly airstrikes, but American F-16s did score their first air-to-air kills during the ensuing Operation Southern Watch, downing a MiG-25 in December 1992 and a MiG-23 in January 1993.
US F-16s have seen action in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. F-16s in service with other countries have flown combat missions over Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.
F-16s are also seen regularly over the Baltic and Black Sea as part of NATO’s air-policing operations and over the Taiwan Strait, where Taiwan regularly scrambles its F-16s to intercept Chinese military aircraft.
About 1,300 F-16s are in service with the US Air Force, and the jet is still loved by its pilots.
The Air Force originally planned to retire its F-16s in 2025, but budget constraints and the slow delivery of its intended replacement, the F-35, forced the service to initiate a Service Life Extension Program for its F-16s, enabling the fighters to fly until at least 2048.
The Air Force is reportedly interested in buying brand new F-16s, as both F-16s and F-15EXs were in the service’s fiscal year 2023 budget request. These would be the first new F-16s to enter US service since 2005.
F-16s are still being built for international customers, and “that system has some wonderful upgraded capabilities that are worth thinking about as part of our capacity solution,” Will Roper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told Aviation Week in January.
It is not known what type of F-16 the Air Force may buy. The most advanced version in active service, the F-16E/F Block 60 “Desert Falcon,” is flown by the United Arab Emirates Air Force.
Lockheed Martin, which bought General Dynamics in 1993, has developed the Block 70/72, the newest production F-16, which features large external fuel tanks and new, advanced avionics, notably the APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which has already saved pilots.
Lockheed has also developed the F-16V, its latest, most advanced upgrade configuration, which several countries have purchased, including Taiwan.