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Can the F-15EX become a missile truck for the Air Force?

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The U.S. Air Force is testing the F-15EX Eagle II’s capability to launch long-range air-to-air missiles.

The ultimate goal is to take advantage of the Eagle II’s ability to carry large numbers of missiles, and essentially turn it into a “missile truck.” Put enough missiles into the air, and the F-15EX can clear a path through enemy interceptors for other planes such as the F-35, which is stealthy but carries far fewer weapons.

A team from Detachment 6 of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment (AFOTEC) has been analyzing results from a January Weapons System Evaluation Program (WSIP) test of the F-15EX II at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The tests include firing the AIM-120C3 and AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). The radar-guided AIM-120D reportedly has a range of up to 87 miles.

“These missile shots, conducted January 25, showed how the F-15 EX can be employed in theater and provided the context needed for Detachment 6 to verify its combat capability,” the Air Force said in a news release.

“One of the main takeaways from these live fire shots is the jet can clearly function as a long-range, standoff weapons system,” said Capt. Max Denbin, lead test engineer for the team.

“The F-15EX can shoot from a significantly increased range – farther than any other fighter in the U.S. Air Force arsenal – and provides the unique capability of holding 12 AMRAAMs or other large ordinance,” Denbin added.

Related: Why can’t NATO give Ukraine F-15s or F-16s? It’s about more than pilot training

Integrating with the new boys

F-15 and F-35
An F-35A Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, and an F-15C Eagle from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, stand by to take-off for a training sortie at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, April 20, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez)

The AFOTEC team also examined how the non-stealthy F-15EX – a 21st-century upgrade of the fourth-generation F-15 that was first deployed in the mid-1970s – would integrate with stealthy fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 and F-22.

“This is a platform that can work with penetrating assets in a network-enabled battlespace with the potential to cause significant problems for our adversaries,” said 1st Lt. Hagan Strader, a lead analyst for the team.

Also being evaluated was the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS), which provides the F-15E and F-15EX radar warning as well as jamming and other countermeasures. The Eagle II had already used its EPAWSS at Elgin as part of F-35 operational test flights.

“Whether in a more passive jamming role, or as a follow-on strike package, an F-15E or EX with EPAWSS causes detrimental impacts to opposing forces decision space,” Strader said. “This system gives aircrews many more options when fighting through contested airspace and enables other stealth assets in a force package – like an F-22, F-35, or other futuristic penetrating assets – to more efficiently neutralize threats.”

Related: How much cheaper is the F-15EX compared to the F-35?

The F-15EX as an ‘outsized’ missile platform

F-15 missiles loading
Nellis team members load a training missile onto an F-15 Eagle during a weapons load competition, June 1, 2019, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. Weapons loaders from the 142nd, 173rd, and 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons out of Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base, Ore., and Nellis Air Force Base, NV, respectively, competed against each other in a timed weapons load as part of the 30-year anniversary celebration of the F-15 Eagles in Portland. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Steph Sawyer, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

What’s particularly interesting is the notion of the F-15EX as a missile carrier to assist fifth-generation aircraft, especially the F-35. The F-35 can carry 10 missiles internally and externally, but external objects disrupt the aircraft’s stealth shape and make it more visible to radar. The F-35 can choose to remain stealthy, but this currently limits it to four AIM-120 missiles carried in an internal bomb bay.

Also intriguing is the possibility that the Air Force may be developing a longer-range air-to-air missile to replace the AIM-120, which itself replaced the AIM-7 Sparrow that proved unreliable during air combat in Vietnam.

By comparison, China’s PL-15 missile reportedly has a range of 124 miles. If true, it would outrange the AIM-120. A longer-range American missile would help.

Nevertheless, even armed with the AIM-120, a missile-packed F-15EX Eagle II would still be an asset.

In 2021, Air Force Magazine cited documents that described the F-15EX as “‘an outsized weapons truck,’ useful for carrying standoff weapons in a contested theater or performing air superiority in less-contested airspace.” And now this idea is being put to the test.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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