The New F-15EX Flies For The First Time Ahead Of The First Deliveries Later This Year

The F-15EX AF 20-0001 photographed immediately after the  landing gear retraction during the takeoff. (Photo: @vikingaeroimages)

The new advanced F-15EX Eagles will replace the older F-15Cs that have long surpassed their expected service-life estimates.

The first new F-15EX built for the U.S. Air Force took the skies for the first time today from Boeing’s plant at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. The aircraft, serial AF 20-0001, blasted off from runway 30L at about 1:53 pm ET, using the callsign RED 62 [a previous version of the story reported the c/s as BREM but we were informed it was RED, another Boeing flight test callsign], for a 90-minute test flight. This maiden flight was initially scheduled for yesterday, however it had to be delayed because of the weather. The photos of the aircraft were kindly shared with us by aviation photographer vikingaeroimages, based in St. Louis.

As usual for the fighters departing from Boeing’s facilities, the F-15EX performed the “Viking departure”, as St. Louis workers call the unrestricted climb immediately after a very short takeoff roll meant to reach the upper flight levels before overflying the crossing runway 6/24, clearing this way the airspace for civilian aircraft that may be departing or arriving on that runway.

It is interesting to note that both pilots were photographed using the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System II (JHMCS II), however the helmet has not been yet acquired by the U.S. Air Force. The same helmet was being tested for the F-16 Block 70, but reported some shortfalls during ejection testing. No safety issues where reported during the testing with the F-15.

Boeing published last summer the photos of the first two new aircraft being built, following a USD 1.2 billion deal for the first lot of eight F-15EX jets that will be delivered to Eglin Air Force Base (Florida) to be thoroughly tested before starting to replace the oldest F-15Cs and F-15Ds in the U.S. Air Force fleet. The Air Force is planning to buy 76 F-15EX aircraft over the five-year Future Years Defense Program, a number that could eventually increase up to 144 aircraft.

The new F-15EX, developed from the F-15QA that was until now the most advanced Eagle variant, comes from a series of needs mainly emerged after the National Defense Strategy directed the U.S. armed services to adapt to the new threats from China and Russia. The most burdensome requirement is the need for the Air Force to add 74 new squadrons to the current 312 squadrons, reaching a total of 386 by 2030, while also lowering the average aircraft age down from 28 years to 15 years without losing any capacity.

The F-15EX AF 20-0001 performing the “Viking departure”. (Photo: @vikingaeroimages)

To reach these objectives, the service would need 72 new fighters every year, but the budget wouldn’t be enough for them to be all F-35, allowing only 48-60 5th gen jets a year. In 2019, the decision was made to allocate the funding for the first eight F-15EXs, as this would have been a more practical solution than waiting for enough F-35s to be available to replace the F-15C. In that occasion, Gen. Mike Holmes, then commander of Air Combat Command, said: “The F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleets. The F-15EX is ready to fight as soon as it comes off the line.”

What Gen. Holmes said was motivated by the expected fast transition from the legacy Eagle to the F-15EX, as the two aircraft share a “80-90 percent commonality”, with the F-15EX being able to use all the ground equipment of the -C variant. This way, the transition will take “less than six months” instead of the usual 18 months for an active duty unit or three years of an Air National Guard unit.

Like the F-15QA Qatar Advanced from which it was developed, the F-15EX is a two-seat aircraft but with some added US-only capabilities. It features new outer wing hardpoints for increased payload, AN/APG-82(V)1 Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems (JHMCS) for both the pilot and the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO), 10×19-in Large Area Displays (LADs) and low-profile Head-Up Display (HUD) in both cockpits, digital fly-by-wire, General Electric F110-GE-129 engines, the new Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance system, the Legion Pod InfraRed Search and Track system (IRST) and the latest mission systems and software capabilities available for legacy F-15s.

According to the Air Force, “the most significant difference between the F-15EX and legacy F-15s lies in its Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture. The OMS architecture will enable the rapid insertion of the latest aircraft technologies.” The same concept is being applied in all the recent programs initiated by the service, like Skyborg and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

The F-15EX AF 20-0001 landing back at St. Louis after the maiden flight. (Photo: @vikingaeroimages)

The EPAWSS, developed by BAE systems, is a new generation Electronic Warfare (EW) system that will be retrofitted also on the current F-15 fleet. The new system, which complements the AN/AAR-57A(V) Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) designed to detect infrared threats, was also tested during the Large Force Test Event 20.03 at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) in November 2020. This type of events has now been redesigned Black Flag and, differently from the more famous Red Flag, is solely focused on test and tactics development in a realistic, massed force, fully integrated, high threat density environment.

Here is a brief description of EPAWSS provided by the USAF:

The EPAWSS is designed to provide indication, type and position of ground-based RF threats as well as bearing of airborne threats with the situational awareness needed to avoid, engage or negate the threat. The EPAWSS defends against RF and IR threat systems detecting or acquiring accurate targeting information prior to threat engagement thus complicating and/or negating an enemy threat targeting solution. The system counters threats through its suite of components with electro optical and RF techniques.

With the new outer wing hardpoints and new weapon racks, the F-15EX will be able to carry a way higher payload than its predecessor, with up 22 air-to-air missiles in air-to-air configuration. This way the F-15EX would act as a “bomb/missile truck” carrying a lot of long-range air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground standoff weapons.

An interesting detail was provided also by Boeing last year: “The F-15EX […] can launch hypersonic weapons up to 22 feet long and weighing up to 7,000 pounds.” This was followed by the company showing a representative model of a hypersonic missile under the centerline hardpoint of the F-15EX at the Air Warfare Symposium in February 2020. The new Eagle variant is reportedly being evaluated as a launch platform for the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) hypersonic missile, which is expected to perform soon the first launch from a B-52 bomber.

Thanks again to vikingaeroimages for the photos he sent us and make sure to follow him on Instagram for more!

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.