The F-15 Eagle: Inside One of America's Most Deadly Fighter Jets of All Time
Melnik’s kill was the start of a remarkable string of 104 consecutive air-to-air victories for the F-15, with not a single Eagle lost. Israeli, Saudi and American F-15s were responsible for this impressive streak. Israeli kills included were recorded between 1979 and 1982 and included Syrian MiG-25 Foxbat interceptors, MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters, and a number of ground attack and strike aircraft. During the 1991 Gulf War, the American and Saudi tally included Iraqi MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, Mirage F-1 fighters and even an Il-76 “Candid” medium transport. One F-15E Strike Eagle even scored an air-to-air kill against an Iraqi Mi-24 attack helicopter with a laser-guided bomb.
The F-15A was eventually replaced in production by the F-15C, which included a newer AN/APG-70 synthetic aperture radar and newer F100-PW-220 engines. The latest program, nicknamed Golden Eagle, stress tests F-15Cs for wear and tear, and 178 of the planes in the best physical condition with the least receive new APG-63V3 active electronically scanned array radars and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System, allowing rapid target acquisition with infrared guided missiles.
In the late 1980s, the F-15E was developed to supplement—and eventually replace the F-111 fighter bomber as a penetrating, high speed tactical strike aircraft designed to strike deep behind enemy lines in a NATO/Warsaw Pact war in Europe. The E model added conformal fuel tanks to increase range with a heavy bomb payload, the APG-63 radar, and a LANTRIN forward-looking infrared and laser targeting pod. With the retirement of the F-111, the F-15E “Strike Eagle” is now the USAF’s main tactical fighter bomber.
The USAF bought its last F-15 in 2001, but foreign sales have kept Boeing’s production line humming since. The company has twice in recent years tried to again attract the interest of the Air Force, first with the semi-stealthy Silent Eagle in 2010. In 2016, Boeing again introduced a new F-15, Eagle 2040C. Eagle 2040C is designed to carry up to sixteen AIM-120D AMRAAM radar-guided missiles, more than four times the original number. The Talon HATE datalink would allow the upgraded design to network with the F-22 Raptor. One concept of operation would have the stealthy—but relatively short on firepower—F-22 flying among enemy aircraft, passing on targeting information to a Eagle 2040C acting as a flying missile battery.
Today, the USAF still employs around 177 upgraded F-15C and two-seater D models, and approximately 224 F-15E Strike Eagles. F-15s are deployed in forward bases in both Europe and Asia, most notably at RAF Lakenheath in the UK and Kadena Air Force base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Japanese F-15Js also operate from Okinawa, and were allegedly involved in an aerial encounter in June 2016 involving Chinese Su-30 Flanker fighters. F-15Es are currently deployed at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, where they are participating in the air war against Islamic State.
In a world still dominated by fourth-generation fighters, the F-15 is an aging—but still formidable—fighter. The lack of sufficient numbers of F-22 Raptors to replace the Eagle has delayed the fighter’s retirement, and it now trains to complement the F-22 on the battlefield. The lack of a current, viable replacement means it will be at least until the early 2030s before the remaining C and E models are retired. The F-15 airframe in all its flavors will almost certainly spend an impressive half-century in active service— a first for a front line U.S. Air Force fighter.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.