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Air Force upgrades F-15 to compete with Chinese J-10

The Air Force is reving up electronic warfare upgrades for its F-15 fighter as a way to better protect against enemy fire and electronic attacks, service officials said.


Boeing has secured a $478 million deal to continue work on a new technology called with a system called the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System, or EPAWSS.

"This allows the aircraft to identify a threat and actively prosecute that threat through avoidance, deception or jamming techniques," Mike Gibbons, Vice President of the Boeing F-15 program, told Scout Warrior in an interview a few months ago.

Related: Trump teases big order of F-18s in response to F-35 cost overruns

 These updated EW capabilities replace the Tactical Electronic Warfare Suite, which has been used since the 1980s, not long after the F-15 first deployed. The service plans to operate the fleet until the mid-2040's, so an overhaul of the Eagle's electronic systems helps maintain U.S. air supremacy, the contract announcement said.

Boeing won the initial contract for the EPAWSS project last year and hired BAE Systems as the primary subcontractor. 

Overall, the US Air Force is vigorously upgrading the 1980s-era F-15 fighter by giving new weapons and sensors in the hope of maintaining air-to-air superiority over the Chinese J-10 equivalent.

The multi-pronged effort not only includes the current addition of electronic warfare technology but also extends to super-fast high-speed computers, infrared search and track enemy targeting systems, increased networking ability and upgraded weapons-firing capability, Air Force and Boeing officials said.

"The Air Force plans to keep the F-15 fleet in service until the mid-2040's.  Many of the F-15 systems date back to the 1970's and must be upgraded if the aircraft is to remain operationally effective. Various upgrades will be complete as early as 2021 for the F-15C AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar and as late as 2032 for the various EW (electronic warfare) upgrades," Air Force spokesman Maj. Rob Leese told Scout Warrior a few months ago.

The Air Force currently operates roughly 400 F-15C, D and E variants. A key impetus for the upgrade was well articulate in a Congressional report on the US and China in 2014. (US-China Economic and Security Review Commission --www.uscc.gov). Among other things, the report cited rapid Chinese technological progress and explained that the US margin of superiority has massively decreased since the 1980s.

As an example, the report said that in the 1980s, the US F-15 was vastly superior to the Chinese equivalent – the J-10. However, Chinese technical advances in recent years have considerably narrowed that gap to the point where the Chinese J-10 is now roughly comparable to the US F-15, the report explained.

Air Force and Boeing developers maintain that ongoing upgrades to the F-15 will ensure that this equivalence is not the case and that, instead, they will ensure the superiority of the F-15.

A Boeing Advanced F-15 Eagle on the flight line in St. Louis. | Boeing photo

Among the upgrades is an ongoing effort to equip the F-15 with the fastest jet-computer processer in the world, called the Advanced Display Core Processor, or ADCPII.

"It is capable of processing 87 billion instructions per second of computing throughput, translating into faster and more reliable mission processing capability for an aircrew," Boeing spokesman Randy Jackson told Scout Warrior.

High tech targeting and tracking technology is also being integrated onto the F-15, Gibbons added. This includes the addition of a passive long-range sensor called Infrared Search and Track, or IRST.

The technology is also being engineered into the Navy F-18 Super Hornet. The technology can detect the heat signature, often called infrared emissions, of enemy aircraft.

"The system can simultaneously track multiple targets and provide a highly effective air-to-air targeting capability, even when encountering advanced threats equipped with radar-jamming technology," Navy officials said.

IRST also provides an alternate air-to-air targeting system in a high threat electronic attack environment, Navy, Air Force and industry developers said.

The F-15 is also being engineered for additional speed and range, along with weapons-firing ability. The weapons-carrying ability is being increased from 8 up to 16 weapons; this includes an ability to fire an AIM-9x or AIM-120 missile. In addition, upgrades to the aircraft include adding an increased ability to integrate or accommodate new emerging weapons systems as they become available. This is being done through both hardware and software-oriented "open standards" IP protocol and architecture.

The aircraft is also getting a "fly-by-wire" automated flight control system.

"Fly by wire means when the pilot provides the input - straight to a computer than then determines how to have the aircraft perform the way it wants - provides electrical signals for the more quickly and more safely move from point to point as opposed to using a mechanical controls stick," Gibbons explained.

The J-10 at Zhuhai airshow. | Creative Commons photo

Along with these weapons upgrades and other modifications, the F-15 is also getting upgrades to the pilot's digital helmet and some radar signature reducing, or stealthy characteristics.

However, at the same time, the F-15 is not a stealthy aircraft and is expected to be used in combat environments in what is called "less contested" environments where the Air Force already has a margin of air superiority over advanced enemy air defenses.

Also read: World's most-advanced aircraft carrier one step closer to completion

For this reason, the F-15 will also be increasing networked so as to better support existing 5th-generation platforms such as the F-22 and F-35, Air Force officials said.

The intent of these F-15 upgrades is to effectively perform the missions assigned to the F-15 fleet, which are to support the F-22 in providing air superiority and the F-35 in providing precision attack capabilities, Leese said.

"While these upgrades will not make these aircraft equivalent to 5th generation fighters, they will allow the F-15 to support 5th generation fighters in performing their missions, and will also allow F-15s to assume missions in more permissive environments where capabilities of 5th generation fighters are not required," Leese added.

Gibbons added that the upgrades to the F-15 will ensure that the fighter aircraft remains superior to its Chinese equivalent.

"The F-15 as a vital platform that still has a capability that cannot be matched in terms of ability to fly high, fly fast, go very far carry a lot. It is an air dominance machine," Gibbons explained.

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