The last class of U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter pilots has graduated from the Weapons Instructor Course at the Air Force Weapons School. After more than four decades, this training program has come to an end as the service works toward replacing its aging F-15Cs with new F-15EX Eagle II fighters.
The final Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) class involving F-15Cs, known as WIC 21-B, concluded at the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on Dec. 8, but the Air Force only announced that this would be the last such class yesterday. Eagle pilots taking part in WIC 21-B capped things off with a final defensive counter-air evolution, a training mission focused on honing skills for protecting friendly assets and territory from enemy aircraft. This is a primary mission set for the Air Force's remaining fleet of F-15C/Ds, many of which are based in the United States and are also tasked with protecting America's airspace.
The WIC program certifies highly trained instructors for various types of aircraft, as well as certain other kinds of operational specialties, and then sends them back to their home stations to share that knowledge with others in their units. Each WIC class spends months at the Air Force Weapon School going through extremely challenging training on the ground and in the air. WIC graduates are often referred to as 'patch wearers' in reference to the distinct shoulder patch they are authorized to put on their uniforms, which marks them as a guru for tactics implantation and instruction at their parent units.
The Weapons School at Nellis has been putting students through instructor training related to the F-15C since 1978, the year before the type officially entered service, according to the Air Force. The C variant of the F-15, along with the two-seat F-15D, subsequently replaced earlier F-15A and B types. F-15A/Bs had started being delivered in the early 1970s, but they only formally entered service in 1976.
“The F-15 has some advances, but it’s still the F-15 from the 1970s in a lot of ways,” Air Force Maj. Michael Tope, the leader of the F-15C portion of WIC 21-B, said in a statement. “That speaks to the capabilities of the maintainers and the people who have worked on the jets, as well as the instructors who have developed different tactics.”
At present, the Air Force has just under 220 F-15C/Ds still in inventory. The service's plan to replace those jets with new production F-15EX aircraft, a design Boeing derived from Advanced Eagle variants it had developed for foreign customers in recent years, first emerged in 2018. The Eagle II is the most advanced F-15 variant Boeing has produced to date and features major capability improvements over older Eagles thanks to its new radar, electronic warfare suite, open-architecture software, the ability to carry hypersonic missiles and other new weapons, the capability to work together with "loyal wingman" type drones, and much more, as you can read about in detail here. The Air Force sees these non-stealthy aircraft as an important complement to existing and future stealth fighters as part of a planned force structure that will provide a valuable mix of higher and lower-end capabilities for years to come.
As it stands now, the Air Force hopes to buy at least 144 Eagle IIs, though this number could very well grow in the future, especially if the decision is made to supplant the service's F-15E Strike Eagles with these newer jets, as well. The Air Force has taken delivery of two prototype F-15EXs already and has received funds to buy 20 examples, in total, so far from Congress. The latest version of the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, for the 2022 Fiscal Year, which is currently awaiting a decision by President Joe Biden to either sign it into law or veto it, authorizes funding for another 17 of these jets.
The Oregon Air National Guard's 173rd Fighter Wing, which runs the service's only F-15C/D schoolhouse, is set to be the first unit to get F-15EXs, the first of which are scheduled to arrive in the 2024 Fiscal Year. If all goes to plan, Oregon's 142nd Fighter Wing, based in Portland, will become the first operational unit to fly these jets starting in the following fiscal cycle.
At the same time, F-15C/Ds will remain in operational service, as well as potentially in test and evaluation roles, for some time still. The Eagles that presently fly in support of the Weapon School are now set to be distributed between Air National Guard and test units. As such, there will remain some need for Eagle weapons instructor over at least the next few years. Since the Air Force will not be training any new ones going forward, this led to some changes in the course structure for the F-15C pilots in WIC 21-B.
“We spent a little bit more time on the critical thinking concept rather than finessing the individual Eagle execution that they should already know," Air Force Maj. Rodolfo Cruz, the Director of Operations for the Air Force Weapon School's 433rd Weapons Squadron, said in a statement. "We had to think about how we as the Weapons School think about problems, so that when the graduates go out into the Combat Air Force, they can think about the problems in the same manner."
Still, the Air Force's remaining F-15C/Ds are clearly in the twilight of their careers.
“We are having to pivot as an Air Force,” Maj. Tope, the F-15C class leader for WIC 21-B, said. “We train against the current threats and to be ready in case we need to employ. The baseline threat has changed so much, and the ranges at which people are shooting and dying in air-to-air war have increased so significantly over the last 20 years it is pretty incredible."
"I love the F-15C," Maj. Cruz, the 433rd Weapons Squadron DIrector of Operations, added. "I don’t want it to die, but we have to move on, because if we continue to rest on our laurels, it’s going to make the fight that much harder for us."
The graduation of the final class of F-15C weapons instructors from the Air Force Weapon School is just the latest sign that the era of the Air Force's standard Eagle is coming to an end.
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