“Fuck stealth!” An F-15 pilot opines on why the Eagle II is needed (and the story of the ‘Eagle Eye’ hunter scope)
My friend Joe Coles, who publishes the excellent Hush-Kit aviation blog, asked for my thoughts on the USAF’s new version of its legacy fighter, the F-15EX Eagle II. This is my short response:
Joe, I can’t speak much to the aircraft itself, but I started pushing the idea of buying some of the advanced versions being built for allied nations years ago, prompted by the aging of F-15s still in USAF service and the far smaller buy of F-22s than originally planned. At the time no one in any official position would even broach the subject, because to do so would threaten the F-35 buy. Now, USAF leaders are openly talking about a “future without the F-22” and even more cutbacks in the total F-35 buy … the good old F-15 has range the F-22 and F-35 don’t, a robust airframe you can hang the most powerful radar on, and the ability to carry up to 22 air-to-air missiles. All you give up is stealth. And as I also said years ago, “fuck stealth.” I’ll see what I can work up.
By way of backup, I first wrote about buying new F-15s in July 2015. In that post I cited three ‘legacy’ fighters the U.S. military was no longer buying, but which were still being built for foreign sales: the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet. At the time, no one in the military or defence contractor community would openly discuss the idea. Surely the thought had occurred to many, but to speak of it might threaten the military’s most sacred cow: the F-35 Lightning II. Here’s some of what I said then:
All of these current and proven fighters share the advantages attributed to the F-35: they are true multirole aircraft, they are highly manoeuvrable, they use advanced digital array radars, they can employ everything in the modern air-to-air and air-to-ground armament inventory, they have helmet-mounted displays with off-boresight missile cueing, they have datalink for information sharing. The only thing they don’t have is stealth.
Fuck stealth. There isn’t an air force in the world that won’t turn tail and run from a wall of Eagles coming its way.
To be fair, there is also this: the success of the F-35 programme depends on American and allied countries standing firm on buying it in the numbers projected. If one or two allies back away from their commitments to buy the F-35, costs will go up dramatically and other allies may get wobbly knees. And if American military services start buying new versions of legacy fighters, they’re going to want fewer F-35s.
A lot has happened since 2015. Buying new versions of legacy fighters is no longer a taboo topic but an established reality. The USAF is buying 144 F-15EX Eagle II aircraft, an advanced version of the F-15QA being built for Qatar. The first two USAF F-15EXs are now undergoing testing at Eglin AFB, Florida. The added capability they’ll give the USAF, in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles, is already affecting the F-35 programme, with reduced numbers of aircraft being budgeted for and purchased each year.
A more direct threat to the F-35 programme is the USAF purchase of new F-16s (also still in production for foreign customers), since unlike the F-15, the F-16 is the fighter the F-35 was meant to replace. In fact there is now high-level talk of buying new F-16s and capping USAF F-35 purchases at 1,050 versus the 1,763 originally planned. This isn’t a done deal, but it’s looking likely. As for the Navy, it too is buying new versions of a legacy fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet. I don’t have numbers, but the decision is bound to affect the number of F-35s that service will eventually buy.
Under the Obama administration, production of the F-22 Raptor, the stealth air superiority fighter meant to replace the F-15 Eagle, was capped at 187 aircraft, far short of the 750 the USAF said it needed. It made sense then to keep a number of existing F-15Cs flying to supplement the few F-22s in service. Now that those remaining F-15Cs are facing retirement, it makes sense to replace them with new F-15EXs. The same logic applies to the idea of supplementing USAF F-35s with existing F-16s, then purchasing new versions of the F-16 as the existing fleet is retired. In both cases, new versions of legacy fighters are cheaper to buy and operate than the aircraft that were meant to replace them, and in some specific areas (range and weapons-carrying capabilities, for example) better as well. Yes, we sacrifice stealth. You already know what I think of that.
I recently wrote about the Eagle Eye, the rifle scope F-15 pilots once used to see and identify target aircraft at longer ranges. You can see one mounted to the head-up display bracket behind the windscreen of this F-15:
I remembered that my operations officer at Soesterberg Air Base, one of the original cadre of pilots selected to fly the F-15, had been one of the movers behind the Eagle Eye. I contacted him to see if what I’d written was anywhere close to the truth. Here’s his response:
“Skid, Great to hear from you and that you are both hale and hearty. Re Eagle Eye … as I recall the impetus was a 2-year mid-70s test called AIMVAL/ACEVAL, during which VID was required. The little airplane mafia wanted to cancel the F-15 buy and purchase a bunch of F-5s. VID meant the all aspect AIM-7 was almost ineffective. We chatted with our AF and McAir engineers and had them design and produce the gun scope mounting brackets, bought 7 scopes for our test aircraft, and tried them out. They got our VID range outside of min range. The things we did for our country! Cheers, Jeff“
To flesh that out:
VID is visual identification, the ability to see an adversary aircraft and determine what it is: friend or foe, aircraft type, national markings, etc.
AIMVAL/ACEVAL: Air Intercept Missile Evaluation/Air Combat Evaluation, a mid-1970s test conducted primarily at Nellis AFB, Nevada with a fleet of F-15s, F-14s, and F-5s.
The “little airplane mafia” were reformers in DoD and the defense industry opposed to the Air Force and Navy’s large, expensive, and complex F-15 Eagle and F-14 Tomcat, who argued instead for purchasing large numbers of smaller, less capable fighters like the F-5E Tiger II. Their influence led to the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests at Nellis, and later to the Air Force and Navy’s decision to buy “high/low” mixes of fighters (F-15s and F-16s, F-14s and F/A-18s).
The AIMVAL/ACEVAL test was “rigged” to skew results in the little airplane mafia’s favor with the imposition of VID requirements imposed on F-15 and F-14 crews, preventing them from employing their long-range weapon, the all-aspect AIM-7 Sparrow missile, against the F-5s (which were not equipped with long-range radars or missiles).
The Eagle Eye, developed by AIMVAL/ACEVAL F-15 pilots, allowed them to VID F-5s coming at them in time to take head-on AIM-7 shots before minimum range.
In the end, despite rules designed to even things out for the little planes, it was clear to military leadership that the F-15 and F-14, with their long-range radars and missiles, gave more bang for the buck. The F-15 in particular turned out to be its own best proponent, with a combat record of 104 air-to-air kills and not a single loss. The small airplane mafia did get something out of the deal, though: USAF F-5 aggressor squadrons were established in the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific (today the USAF’s aggressor role is performed by civilian contractors, but the Navy and Marines still have a few F-5s at China Lake and Yuma).
In my personal experience (I came into the F-15 in 1978, not long after the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests concluded), artificial training limitations on the F-15’s long range and all aspect missiles persisted well into the 1980s. It was routine, when setting up dissimilar air combat training with units operating older and lesser-capable fighters, for them to demand we not score (or even take) long range head-on radar missile shots, or even close-range head-on shots with our all-aspect heatseeking missiles, the idea being to force us into turning visual dogfights where many of the Eagle’s advantages were eliminated. It was done for fairness, of course, and even though we weren’t allowed to call kills with them, we took those long- and close-range head-on shots anyway, and knew we’d taken our adversaries out prior to the merge … just the way the designers of the Eagle intended.
Today, everyone has all-aspect radar and heatseeking missiles, and is equipped with sophisticated electronic equipment for identifying enemy aircraft at distances outside of visual range. The Eagle Eye, as far as I know, is an obsolete piece of gear. But damn, when you saw F-15 pilots stepping to their jets with a helmet bag in one hand and a mean-looking rifle scope in the other, you knew they meant business!
- By Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford, We strongly recommend you check out his excellent blog.
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Thank you for the interesting article. There has been a lot said about the “game changing” F35. Now that it is being discussed about a reduced buy and possible new 4.5 gen replacement aircraft and a 6 gen aircraft what have we learned? There are endless article of issues on the F35 program. But what are the issues that the powers with the purse strings need to have learned if starting a new fighter aircraft program from scratch. I’ll start the list with a few easy ones.
COST! Purchase cost & sustainment cost
TIME! Program development timeline was/is too slow.
Too big to fail
CONGRUENCEY Starting production before all the issues resolved & thus having aircraft built that are not war ready & too expensive to fix/upgrade
Reaching too far. 3 models of one basic design, to do everything. It failed on commonality of parts.
STEALTH! the cost of stealth in performance, range & payload
VTOL! the cost of making this work in performance, range & payload
Contractor owns rights to the software, maintenance system and key features in the design.
Down selecting to one contractor!
Contractor influence in the political arena effecting the decision making process
Contractor influence in the military & Pentagon arena effecting sound decision making
Failure of the written contract to protect the American tax payer when the aircraft does not perform to specification.
Too restrictive requirements to allow a contractor to come up with cost effective solutions.
Program is too bureaucratic, too many departments, too many people & too slow
“Under the Obama administration, production of the F-22 Raptor, the stealth air superiority fighter meant to replace the F-15 Eagle, was capped at 187 aircraft, far short of the 750 the USAF said it needed.”
With all due respect, Obama didn’t take office until 2008, which appears to be well after the F22 decision was made.
How difficult was it to use the Eagle Eye scope? From the picture in this article, it looks like you had to lean forward until your oxygen mask was almost touching the control panel, while manoeuvring to keep the target in the narrow field of view of the scope.
“Obama administration, production of the F-22 Raptor, the stealth air superiority fighter meant to replace the F-15 Eagle, was capped at 187 aircraft,”
No it wasnt, the cap came much earlier in Rumsfelds time. Its all spelt out in a USAF Paper from Defence technical Information Centre
‘The F-22 Acquisition Program Consequences for the US Air Force’s Fighter Fleet’
Lt Col Christopher J. Niemi, USAF
The details says ‘Late in 2004, Presidential Budget Directive 753 removed production funding after FY 2008, effectively ending production at 183 F-22s’ A bit of jiggling around and delays meant it was slightly higher and later. The pre-planned production end came in Obama administration time (Rumsfelds replacement carried over as Defence Secretary) and they didnt change it. The reasons by then included Lockheed having the F-35 program and a $9-10 bill program to upgrade all F-22s to final production standard meant building and upgrading wasnt fiscally possible. Same thing happening now with F-35- build or upgrade , means one misses out.
Click to access a567480.pdf
A bit more information about the F-22 force structure over time from the DTIC paper
In 1991 ( end of Cold War) the numbers went from around 750 to 648
1993 BUR ( Bottom Up Review) became 442 ( based around 20 fighter wings)
1997 QDR (Quadrennial Defence Review) became 381 ( based on 10 AEF wings with 1 F-22 squadron each plus extras))
Then the numbers came under a production budget limit (1998) rather than USAF requirements and fell further as costs rose.
2004 PBD 753 planned to end production at 183.
The decision (to kaput f-22 production) was made by Gates (sec of def under bush) allegedly or supposedly after an intruding f-22 was secretly downed by china over its territory in 2007. Perhaps he realised the f-22 fighter was quite mortal after all despite LM’s claim.
Many warfighters are thrilled to bits by the thought of a swarm of their favorite killer jets going after a victim. That’s OK if ya deciding to prosecute regime change against a puny foe. Against a tough guy, this will only result in the ‘victim’ deciding to turn your air base into a wasteland and then it’s finito for yer swarm of killer jets.
It is remarkable argument that suggests re-inforcing failure has to be tolerated for financial reasons in a crucial area of national defence. But here we are; ‘stealth’ was the magic bullet. My youthful watching ‘Flash Gordon’ on Saturday mornings taught me something. I doubted stealth; or, more precisely, saw it would be easily and most likely swiftly overcome. However, here is a question. Is the United Kingdom making a blunder by putting such faith in Tempest? Might not a Typhoon with increased capability in electronics, sensors and data handling so forth be, well, less risky? Not to mention available much sooner?
yeah, fuck stealth.
saab was right all this time, the future is electronic warfare, not stealth
I think the future is in combat aircraft that don’t cost $100M each.
I wonder what our Russian and Chinese friends are building that they haven’t been showing off…