Flying over the Gulf of Mexico, the US Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-15EX Eagle II, successfully fired an AIM-120D missile on Jan. 25, 2022.
The 40th Flight Test Squadron aircrew and aircraft fired the weapon pursuing a BQM-167 aerial target drone as part of the 53rd Wing’s Combat Archer, an air-to-air weapons system evaluation program (WSEP) conducted near Tyndall Air Force Base.
As explained by Samuel King Jr. in the article Eagle II fires first missile during live-fire event, during the flight, the F-15EX detected the drone using onboard sensors, acquired a weapons-quality track and launched the missile at the target. After tracking the missile’s release and flight toward the BQM-167, the shot was determined a WSEP success, at which point the missile flight was terminated.
The successful release marked the first weapon fired from the aircraft and another major milestone following more than six months of integrated developmental and operational flight testing for the shot.
“This was an end-to-end verification of the entire weapons system, which will pave the way for more complex missile shots in the future,” said Colton Myers, F-15EX test project manager with the Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force.
Not only was this the first F-15EX live fire, it was also the first missile shot for experimental test pilot Maj. Benjamin Naumann. A large part of Combat Archer is providing first-hand, live fire experience. Many pilots perform their first live fire at WSEP.
“I am humbled to have the opportunity to fire the first weapon, but the bigger success is the verification of the F-15EX capability to live-fire a missile,” said Naumann. “This shot is another important step towards fielding the aircraft to combat units.”
Along with weather, extra safety precautions and aircraft settings, test aircrew also have to account for and fly at specific test parameters when firing to ensure the appropriate data is collected for analysis.
“Ultimately we’re a part of an iterative development process, validating expected results and providing feedback to the team on successes or things to improve,” said Naumann. “We act as the liaison to bring combat capabilities to the warfighter.”
The missile shot is one of many milestones for the F-15EX test team at Eglin Air Force Base. Only two months after arrival, the F-15EX deployed to Northern Edge in Alaska. The Eagle II was pushed to its limits in the multi-service exercise and a significant amount of data was collected on the aircraft’s internal performance and how it performed with and against other aircraft.
“The fact that both aircraft were able to turn around from a streamlined acceptance period and immediately deploy to a major exercise is a testament to the maturity of this platform, as well as the expertise of the combined test team as a whole,” said Myers.
Following the deployment, the F-15EX underwent developmental flight and ground testing to include survivability testing in various electromagnetic environments. This series of tests lead to the discovery of and resolution of issues identified in the F-15EX’s Suite 9 software system, leading to a more mature and stable product, according to Myers.
“For a new platform, we’ve made an incredible amount of progress in a short period of time,” said Myers. “I don’t know of any other platform that has undergone such a rapid test program and it’s been incredible to be a part of the team that’s bringing this to reality.”
After the developmental testing, it was time for some operational testing in October. The aircraft deployed to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada for another exercise focused on the air-to-air dominance mantle it will inherit from the F-15C. This exercise proved that while the platform still needs more development, it is completely capable of fulfilling its expected air dominance role, according to Myers.
Myers said the advancement of the program and the EX’s successes over the past 10 months are due to the integrated testing efforts by the 96th Test Wing and 53rd WG.
“The combined DT/OT strategy has been critical to our test success, allowing us to break the mold of ‘traditional’ testing, while ultimately resulting in an overall better product for the warfighter, and in a shorter timeline than if we adopted the traditional approach,” said Myers.
The 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron is responsible for the air-to-air WSEP, a monthly event here.
“The squadron was thrilled to help orchestrate and support this historic shot with our sister organization from Eglin,” said Maj. Andrew Smith, F-15C WSEP program manager. “The F-15EX represents the next era of air-to-air capabilities and the opportunity to execute a first shot utilizing that platform was monumental.”
The USAF is embracing the F-15EX as a means to shore up its fighter force, facing the hard reality that it just doesn’t have enough iron to go around.
The service received only 186 F-22s and it never got the 381 Raptors it planned for to replace its F-15C/Ds and carry the air superiority mission through 2040. The USAF had to retain more than 200 of the youngest or lowest-time F-15Cs well beyond their planned service lives to meet global force requirements. Now those F-15C/Ds are so worn down that the USAF officials say it’s no longer cost-effective to fix them. Hence the service decided to buy the F-15EX to replace the F-15C/D.
The F-15EX is anticipated to join the F-35 Lightning II, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II along with a sixth-generation fighter program as part of the four-plus-one concept intended to streamline the fleet.
Photo credit: 1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin and Tech. Sgt. John Raven / U.S. Air Force