Military Aviation

First operational test mission for F-15EX Eagle II

The F-15EX Eagle ll underwent its first-ever operational test mission paired with F-15Cs and F-15Es at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) Oct. 18-25.

The F-15EX Eagle ll underwent its first-ever operational test mission paired with F-15Cs and F-15Es at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) Oct. 18-25.

“We’ve never done full, large-scale operational tests with the F-15EX, because it’s only been in the U.S. Air Force’s hands for six months,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Juhl, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center F-15 tester. “The fact that we’re going this fast in operational test is definitely owing to the chief of staff of the Air Force’s accelerate change or lose mentality.”

There are currently two F-15EXes in existence. The Air Force accepted delivery of them at Eglin AFB, Florida, in March and April 2021. As explained by Christie Vanover, 57th Wing Public Affairs, in the article F-15EX undergoes first operational test mission at Nellis AFB, the platform 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.

An F-15EX Eagle II Fighter Jet assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, takes off and an F-15C Eagle assigned to the 123rd Fighter Squadron, Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon, taxis to the runway at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Oct. 20, 2021. Aircraft from Nellis AFB, Eglin AFB Florida, and the Oregon Air National Guard are provided support for the Test and Evaluation of the F-15EX in operationally realistic scenarios to determine how effective and suitable the aircraft is at accomplishing its air-to-air mission for future Air Force use.

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.

At Nellis AFB, AFOTEC Detachment 6 is leading the initial operational test and evaluation of the F-15EX with units from Eglin and Nellis AFBs, the Oregon and Florida National Guard and contractors.

The plane has undergone a series of developmental tests to ensure the aircraft adheres to the required build specifications and safety standards. It has also conducted operational missions as part of exercise Northern Edge in Alaska.

The F-15EX Integrated Test & Evaluation 2021 Test Patch worn by Lt. Col Wes Turner during testing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Oct. 20, 2021. Turner conducted F-15EX Eagle II test and evaluation operations.

“The main focus here is to provide the initial push for operational tests and evaluation to really evaluate the platform from an end-to-end perspective with the addition of a robust threat environment that we have here at Nellis. That way, when we write our initial test reports, we’re giving an accurate look to the combat Air Force and the Guard as to what the platform is capable of when it initially fields,” said Colton Myers, Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force F-15EX test project manager.

Maj. Kevin Hand, an F-15EX experimental and operations test pilot with the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Test Center, is among a handful of pilots who will fly multiple day and night missions with defensive and offensive counter air while at Nellis AFB.

“The big thing we’re trying to take away is really showing the differences between the EX and the C model,” Hand said.

An F-15EX Eagle II Fighter Jet assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, taxis out from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Oct. 20, 2021. The new F-15EX aircraft were at Nellis AFB to determine how effective and suitable the aircraft is for future Air Force use.

“A big improvement the EX has is that it’s a digital flight control system, so it’s a fly-by-wire aircraft, versus the traditional C model, which is a standard hydro mechanical aircraft completely controlled by the pilot, versus now a computer controlling the airplane,” he said.

In addition to operationally testing the aircraft, the two-week event also involves testing the aircraft’s Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System.

“The EPAWS system is the next-gen advanced electronic attacks as well as electronic protects system that the EX and Strike Eagles are currently testing and developing and hopefully fielding in the relatively near future,” Hand said. “That’s going to give us the ability to essentially go into some of these more advanced threats or aerial denial kind of situations where we can now self-protect and self-jam our way through.”

Juhl said Nellis AFB is the best place to do the operational testing because it offers the best air-to-air and surface-to-air training range and provides the highest fidelity data on the backend to be able to know whether the systems worked.

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Following the tests at Nellis AFB, Myers said the planes will return to Eglin AFB for more developmental tests.

“We’ve been doing developmental tests for the last several months leading up to this event, which is more operational focus,” he said. “We’ll be transitioning back into developmental tests for the remainder of this year and going into next year, as we continue to test the additional capability of the platform to include the additional weapon stations and additional Operational Flight Program upgrades.”

Following that, Juhl anticipates the F-15EX will eventually participate in exercises like Red Flag-Nellis.

Photo credit: William R. Lewis / U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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