40 Years and Still Lethal
By Barrett Tillman Photos by Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics.com
Airpower advocates note that the U.S. Air Force’s fighter force is old and getting older. The F-15 Eagle was first flown in 1972 with squadron deliveries in 1976. The F-16 Fighting Falcon appeared on the tarmac two years later. So how does the 42-year-old Eagle stand up to the 21st century?
With reduced affordability of the F-22 Raptor and perennial delays and cost overruns with the F-35 Lightning II, the Air Force faces a continuing challenge in keeping its air superiority edge over potential opponents, however unlikely a new air war may seem.
When it appeared in the mid-1970s, the Eagle became the instant world standard fighter. The 365 A models were a sensation, with twin Pratt & Whitney F-100 turbofans rocketing the bird to Mach 2.5 at altitude and about 1.2 down low. Its loadout of infrared and radar missiles plus 20mm cannon could cope with any likely threat.
F-15B and D two-seaters eased transition from F-4s, followed by 408 F-15Cs with improved avionics and greater fuel capacity. International sales boosted Eagle production over 1,200 units, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. Combat success was stunningly lopsided. Israeli Eagles began scoring in 1979, claiming 63 kills through 2001.
During Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, USAF F-15s scored 39 aerial victories against Iraqi aircraft, including four helicopters. Additionally, a Saudi pilot downed two Mirages.
Eight years later, F-15Cs downed four MiG-29s over the Balkans. With a career total of 108 victories to date, no F-15s are known lost in air combat.
The most versatile Eagles in the aerie are some 420 F-15Es delivered from 1988 to date, including Korea and Singapore.
However, in cavalry terms, F-15s have been ridden hard and put up wet. A retired colonel says that the Air Force plans to retain 249 F-15Cs through 2030, while continuing life-extension studies.
However, an analyst observes, “The problem with the F-15Cs is that they are all under flight restrictions regarding max loadings because they have been simply flown to death. The Air Force has operated on a combat footing since 1990 with the first Gulf crisis in Kuwait. I would be very surprised if we have any F-15Cs flying after 2025, and would not be surprised if they are retired in the 2018-2020 time span.”
Currently, Strike Eagles are expected to remain in production until 2019, and operational to 2025.
Having mortgaged the future on stealth, the Air Force faces a serious shortfall of F-15s. An interim suggestion, the semi-stealthy Silent Eagle modification, was rejected. There appears little option but to continue flying worn-out aircraft.
In fairness to the Air Force, the Navy and Marines also have bungled their next-generation aircraft. The stealthy A-12 was canceled after the Navy prematurely axed the A-6 Intruder, and both nautical versions of F-35 remain in serious trouble, running late and well over budget. Despite 90 years of designing and flying carrier aircraft, now the Navy’s F-35C cannot reliably catch an arresting wire.
Whatever happens, Eagles will continue flying for the foreseeable future, bearing sharpened talons on increasingly weary wings.