F-15EX Testers Are Now Preparing The Eagle II For Rapidly Adapting To New Missions

The U.S. Air Force is eyeing a wide range of possible non-traditional missions for the Boeing F-15EX Eagle II, its latest fighter aircraft. Those future missions could include operating the F-15EX as a command and control node, a platform for outsized weapons, and potentially as a key enabler in the service’s concepts for manned-unmanned teaming. TWZ was on scene at Eglin AFB, the epicenter of F-15EX trials, to get a firsthand look at what USAF testers were doing to prep the Eagle II for all the additional capabilities it could potentially assume in the future.

The first emphasis for the F-15EX combined test team at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was the initial fielding of the fighter, ensuring the new Eagle II is suitable and ready to replace aging F-15Cs in Air National Guard units. “The USAF is recapitalizing single-seat F-15C squadrons as a primary objective, so initial suitability evaluation [of the EX] was mainly geared towards that direct replacement,” said Maj. Aaron “Kamikazze” Eshkenazi, an F-15EX pilot assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) “Skulls” at Eglin Air Force Base.

You can read our first installment of our reporting from Eglin AFB on the F-15EX’s testing here.

“Initial evaluation of the F-15EX was completed in November 2023. That was with dedicated mission sets to prove that this airplane is ready to go into full-rate production. Those flights were intentionally flown solo because that’s where the airplane is initially going, so we had to ensure we were not testing something that was not representative of what the CAF [Combat Air Force, or frontline squadrons] is going to be starting out doing.”

A pilot and WSO from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin AFB. Jamie Hunter

“The F-15EX takes the best of both the F-15C and F-15E worlds and combines that with all the enhancements that have been added to the jet. So when we talk about the U.S. Air Force of the future, we’re actually pushing the F-15EX into that future as a brand-new platform,” says Lt. Col. Matthew “Juice” Russel, the director of operations at the 85th TES.

“We are inserting the F-15EX into the existing Eagle community, but it’s 30 years newer than our most modern F-15Es,” adds Russel. “The Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures [TTPs] that have been developed for the Strike Eagle easily transfer over to the EX, plus it has new technology to take it into the future.”

The two-seat F-15EX is an off-the-shelf version of Boeing’s Advanced F-15, and it comes as standard with a two-place cockpit. The F-15EX needs to be effective when flown in a single-pilot configuration to mirror the current operating model of ANG F-15C units. The potential of flying with a Weapons Systems Operator (WSO) in the back seat is also being explored for a variety of possible uses and future mission sets. 

An F-15EX prepares for a mission with the pilot and WSO wearing digital JHMCS helmets. Jamie Hunter

“We have also flown with two aircrew onboard, a pilot and a WSO, so we are not staying too narrow, not over-focused, on just flying the jet solo because there is an unknown sight picture of where the Air Force might want to go,” says Eshkenazi. “So all of those unknown quantities test our perspective to ensure this airplane is ready for whatever the Air Force ultimately decides to do with it.”

“We aren’t tying multi-role to having a two-person crew. We are absolutely not saying that if you’re flying the jet solo you can’t do multi-role missions. It’s about leaving our options open and covering all of that off from a test perspective.”

The Eglin-based Combined Test Force has immersed the Eagle II in realistic large-scale exercises as part of its introduction into the USAF fighter community to help testers understand exactly what the F-15EX might be capable of doing and how it will be able to work alongside its brethren fighter aircraft.

“To illustrate how things run on the Operational Test side, literally two weeks after we received the second F-15EX from the Boeing factory we took it to a Large Force Employment at Exercise Northern Edge 2021 in Alaska,” said Maj. Eshkenazi. “We’ve been integrating it with the F-15C and the F-15E and also with F-22s and F-35s to make sure the airplane is ready to go as soon as it hits the Combat Air Force.”

Three F-15C Eagle fighter jets assigned to the 123rd Fighter Squadron, Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon, and both of the Air Force’s F-15EX aircraft from the 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, wait to take off for a mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Oct. 20, 2021. The aircraft will conduct the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation from Oct. 18-25, 2021 (U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis)
Three F-15C Eagles of the 123rd Fighter Squadron, Oregon Air National Guard and two F-15EXs ready for a combined mission from Nellis AFB in October 2021. USAF/William R. Lewis William Lewis

“The F-15EX has flown on Exercise Black Flag at Nellis AFB, and this week we are flying our F-15EXs on Exercise Checkered Flag that’s running at Tyndall [Air Force Base, Florida]. Those squadrons are also flying on the Combat Archer Weapons System Evaluation Program [WSEP], so they are shooting missiles in the Gulf of Mexico ranges too, and we are integrating here too. We aren’t firing any missiles on this WSEP, but we will be firing the F-15EX’s internal 20mm cannon against air-to-air towed gunnery targets.”

The digital fly-by-wire system in the F-15EX is a big change over the F-15E in terms of increased weapons-carrying capability as it has opened up two additional weapons stations on the wings. “For the majority of regimes of flight, you don’t really notice a significant difference in the handling of the airplane,” explains Maj. Eshkenazi. “The main intent of the fly-by-wire is about carrying heavier stores on the airplane. In the F-15C and F-15E, you have a mechanical control system. On the EX you still move the control column in the same way, but now it transitions into a fully electric flight control system that has a similar feel to the other models of F-15.”

“There is actually a lot of developmental test work being done here assessing the digital fly-by-wire system to see how it performs in real-world conditions.” says Maj. Joshua “Viper” Judy, a Weapons Systems Officer assigned to the 40th Flight Test Squadron. “There’s safety of flight workups and some development work needed to assess how the system compares to the legacy systems of the F-15C and E. There’s future planning as well to make sure all the safety of flight requirements are met going forward.”

“The system helps us with lateral asymmetry and aft center of gravity — regimes where weapons could potentially cause the airplane to depart controlled flight,” adds Eshkenazi. “We can now fly with the two outer wing weapons stations because the electrical flight control system keeps the airplane stable in those regimes of flight. The electronics of the fly-by-wire system enable those stations, and that means you can increase your air-to-air missile capacity by four missiles, and that’s significant.”

Maintainers load 12 AIM-120 AMRAAMs on an F-15EX at Eglin AFB. Jamie Hunter

The new outer weapons stations on the F-15EX mean the fighter can now carry as many as 12 air-to-air missiles. “It’s about the number of missiles that you’re bringing to the fight,” explains Eshkenazi. “We potentially don’t have as many physical fighter aircraft as our enemy, but carrying that many missiles could put us on a par with them. It’s not just the quantity, but also the ability to carry outsized weapons too.”

“The beauty of the F-15 is the physical ability to carry a lot, but currently we aren’t conducting any physical weapons work here at Eglin other than AIM-9X and AIM-120, but there are future weapons we’re working on. For example, we’ve fired two JASSM-ER [AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range] from the F-15EX during Combat Hammer exercises.”

A formation including U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, F-15C Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-15EX Eagle II aircraft assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron fly over Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, May 17, 2024. The 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron conducts operational test and evaluation, tactics development, and programs for F-15C, F-15E, F-15EX, and F-16C aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Blake Wiles)
An F-15EX Eagle II of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron loaded with 12 AMRAAMs. USAF/SSgt. Blake Wiles Staff. Sgt. Blake Wiles

“Outsized weapons is the nomenclature we use right now,” adds Lt. Col. Joe Gagnon, commander of the 85th TES. “We need aircraft that can carry outsized weapons that don’t require an internal carriage capability, and right now our best platform for that is the Strike Eagle and the F-15EX. If you’re thinking about hypersonics, things like that, one of the platforms most likely is going to be an Eagle, because it’s the big airplane that can carry it and not have to carry it internally.”

“What the F-15EX brings that other F-15s do not is what you hear being talked about as the digital backbone of the aircraft,” adds Maj. Eshkenazi. “It has ethernet wiring running throughout the airframe and it’s linked to the weapon stations. This opens up future potential in terms of integrating weapons. We might have a separate computer or a tablet that can be linked [to the jet] that allows us to connect to the weapons stations while keeping our safety of flight elements [in the mission software] isolated. So we could run apps but not have them running through our main computer, which isolates this from the safety of flight things like the flight controls, for example. This means I’m not concerned about an app coming from a vendor that might affect my ability to fly the airplane.”

“One of the big capabilities that the F-15EX brings to the fight is the ability to rapidly put new weapons on it, because of its external carriage capacity and its ability to carry a lot of weight,” Col. Daniel Lehoski, 53rd Wing commander, further explained. “We have the independent ability to upgrade the jet’s Operational Flight Program [OFP] as well as actually working around the OFP to add some capabilities. I’ll give you an example; we have a jet that we’re using to push situational awareness and command and control [C2] capabilities to the leading edge of the fight. We’re doing that literally with an iPad hooked up to the jet in order to get information into it. That sits outside the OFP. It’s a little clunky because you have an iPad in the cockpit, but that is enabling us to add capability in conjunction with our agile OFP upgrades. The iPad is getting power from the jet and then using Link 16 datalink to communicate with the aircraft.”

“We are bringing in other sources of information to the jet other than what’s provided by the radar and the other sensors. We’ve already added an external antenna to the jet, and it’s pretty straightforward because we don’t have to worry about the radar signature and outer mold line of the design.”

A formation including U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, F-15C Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-15EX Eagle II aircraft assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron fly over Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, May 17, 2024. The 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron conducts operational test and evaluation, tactics development, and programs for F-15C, F-15E, F-15EX, and F-16C aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Blake Wiles)
A formation of F-16C, F-15EX, F-15E, and F-15C assigned to the 85th TES and 40th FLTS from Eglin AFB. USAF/SSgt. Blake Wiles Staff. Sgt. Blake Wiles

The USAF is introducing agile software frameworks for all of its fighters, with the F-15EX being part of that strategy, and it is already receiving rapid upgrades to its main computer software to address upgrades and fixes. Some of the jet’s sub-systems can also be upgraded quickly to react to operational needs. The F-15EX’s built-in electronic warfare system, the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System [EPAWSS], is one such system that could be swiftly updated to respond to the battlespace, perhaps a new threat has been found, or a new jamming technique may be needed. “EPAWSS is a line update item, it’s one of those things that we just need to get the appropriate data and maintenance to load updated information,” explains Maj. Eshkenazi.

The EPAWSS system is currently being added to the F-15E as an upgrade. It comes as standard on the F-15EX. EPAWSS recently completed operational testing, and it is now a fielded system. The F-15EX joined the EPAWSS operational test effort towards the end of the lengthy test work on the Strike Eagle. This fits with the USAF strategy regarding the EX — leveraging existing test work where commonality exists between the EX and the existing Eagle fleets. Describing what EPAWSS does, Maj. Judy calls it “a significant increase in situational awareness.” Lt. Col. Gagnon added: “I definitely wouldn’t want to be in a jet trying to use my radar against an EPAWSS-equipped aircraft!”

Long-range kill chains are one of the big things we are looking at right now in terms of what we want to be able to execute,” explains Maj. Eshkenazi. “Our goal is to be able to shoot weapons further and to be able to extend our datalinks and our comms beyond line-of-sight. There’s a lot of discussion about what potential applications we might have for the back seat [in the F-15EX]. Whether it’s the existing kind of Weapon System Operator role, a cyber person, or an ABM [Air Battle Manager]. All of those options are available and it really depends upon those mission sets as we continue to expand into the future.”

“The WSO’s role is to manage the weapon systems,” adds Maj. Judy. “We are looking at the role of the back seat in terms of helping dictate the battlespace. Does this involve a Command and Control [C2] role, is it battle management, maybe a combination of things depending on the mission set — we’re talking about flying unmanned fighters out there. The whole goal of this airplane is to optimize both the front seat and the rear cockpit for whatever mission sets we’re executing as we continue to expand these roles in the future.”

“While there is no current CCA [Collaborative Combat Aircraft] testing going on currently with the EX, I will say from a WSO perspective that having that large area display [LAD] and customizable screens makes for much easier data synthesis compared to the F-15E with its four screens with 1980s-era monochrome. Having that additional situational awareness from the LAD and being able to customize the information that is being displayed to me is helpful in pretty much every mission set that I can fly.”

An F-15EX gets airborne carrying 12 AIM-120 AMRAAMs. Jamie Hunter

Recent test work for the F-15EX team at Eglin has included evaluating the Lockheed Martin Legion Infra-Red Search-and Track (IRST) pod on the jet, as it is a system that will be employed immediately in Air National Guard squadron service. “Legion is a sensor that operates in a different wave band to the radar,” explains Maj. Eshkenazi. “It is long-wave infra-red that helps you detect platforms outside of the X-band, which is typically where the radar is detecting. The F-15C units are already using Legion, and so the intent is to ensure that the F-15EX is able to carry and use that same pod.”

“We are currently software-integrating the Legion Block 1.5 pod, making sure that everything is translated from the C-model to the EX software. We are doing the same for the Sniper targeting pod to make sure that it is also ready to go.” F-15Cs also carry Sniper to help identify targets at long range, and Lt. Col Gagnon explains the differences between the two. “Sniper is a multi-role pod, designed to do a lot of different things. Sort of a jack-of-all-trades. The IRST is a master of one trade, and I can say that it is absolutely 100 percent the master of that.”

A Legion pod mounted under an F-15EX. Jamie Hunter

In addition to preparing the hardware for the first Air National Guard F-15EX squadron, the team at Eglin has trained the first few ANG aircrews for their new mounts. “We just qualified the first guys for the 142nd Wing at Portland [Oregon],” says Maj. Eshkenazi. “We provided F-15EX academics, they flew the simulators and initial flights to get them qualified on the airplane. The common software means a lot of what we do is just difference training. Our approach removes the burden of having to go back through a Formal Training Unit and a T-X [transition] course, so it all minimizes the transition bill from the F-15C to the F-15EX. The first Portland pilots did just four sim rides and three flights to get qualified — that’s it!”

Now that the F-15EX has been deemed suitable for fielding, the Combined Test Force is already eyeing possible upgrades to its brand-new Eagle IIs. Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) is a capability that might be coming, which is already incorporated into the F-16 and F-35 fighters. Maj. Eshkenazi says this is still in a contracting phase, but that the USAF is hoping to leverage the work previously completed for the F-16 and F-35. “Auto GCAS would be software functionality — not hardware — in terms of a flight control software to actually implement it,” he explains.

The F-15EX has the mounting and wiring for forward and rear hemisphere Missile Approach Warning Systems, which are fitted to Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SAs and Qatar Emiri Air Force F-15QAs. However, currently, there are no publicly acknowledged plans to add them to the USAF jets, but one pilot said any upgrades like this would be “desirable.”

Similarly, there are no official plans to recapitalize the F-15E Strike Eagle fleet with EXs, or to make Air National Guard squadrons multi-role units with WSOs, however, testing mandates that the Air Force should be in a position to keep all of its options open. “We are clearly focused on bringing the Eagle communities together, both the air-to-air and the air-to-ground [components], and maximizing the use of all of our aircraft. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re doing with the F-15EX,” Lt. Col. Russel concludes.

“We’re experimenting. We want to get the EX ready for what it was bought for in replacing the F-15C, but obviously, it does have that back seat which is fully missionized, and so the realm of possibilities is endless in terms of what you can do with that back seat and it will all depend on the missions you want to use this jet for.”

Aircrew from the 85th TES following a mission in an Eglin-based F-15EX. Jamie Hunter

The first operational F-15EX was delivered to the 142nd Wing in Portland on June 6, 2024, with Fresno Air National Guard Base in California and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in Louisiana now selected as preferred locations to host squadrons of 18 F-15EXs each as the F-15C recapitalization continues. Two additional squadrons of Eagle IIs will be forward deployed at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where they will fill the gap left by the closing down of a pair of F-15C/D units.

The F-15EX appears to be on track as an efficient replacement for the F-15C, while also offering tremendous opportunities for future missions. However, the USAF is currently capped at 98 F-15EXs, as The War Zone has explained in the past. This just about covers five operational squadrons of 18 aircraft, plus a handful of training and test aircraft. Previously, there were plans to cap the number of F-15EXs at 144 jets.

Proving the F-15EX’s capabilities for future missions such as manned-unmanned teaming, as a C2 or air battle manager node, or as an easily adaptable shooter of new weapons might well earn the Eagle II critical additional roles in the future construct of the USAF. Team Eglin is pushing hard to prove the F-15EX’s basic capabilities, while also readying a clear path for adapting the Eagle II to whatever roles it may be asked to assume in the future.

Editor’s note: The sponsor had no editorial involvement in this article.

Contact the editor: tyler@twz.com