The US Air Force’s new F-15EX fighter is undergoing its first-ever operational test mission paired with F-15Cs and F-15Es at Nellis Air Force Base between October 18 and 25.
There are currently two F-15EXes in existence. The air force accepted delivery of them at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in March and April 2021. The platform is anticipated to join the F-35, F-16 and A-10 along with a sixth-generation fighter program as part of the four-plus-one concept intended to streamline the fleet.
At Nellis, AFOTEC Detachment 6 is leading the initial operational test and evaluation of the F-15EX with units from Eglin and Nellis AFB, 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 Northern Edge in Alaska.
“We’ve never done full, large-scale operational tests with the F-15EX, because it’s only been in the US Air Force’s hands for six months,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Juhl, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center F-15 tester.
“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, F-15EX test project manager, Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force.
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.
“The big thing we’re trying to take away is really showing the differences between the EX and the C model,” said Hand.
“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 (EPAWS).
“The EPAWS system is the next gen advanced electronic attacks as well as electronic protection system that the EX and Strike Eagles are currently testing and developing and hopefully fielding in the relatively near future,” said Hand. “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 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.
“Oftentimes, we go out there as pilots, and we think that the airplane works as well as it should, but behind the scenes, we dig into some of the instrumentation, and it wasn’t exactly what we remembered,” he said. “Every so often, we need the instrumentation folks to help us out with what was really going on.
“The Nellis range complex offers that ability to be able to not only do an instant feedback of how the airplanes performed, but also pull back the data to be able to analyze it in very close detail, to make sure that that’s what was happening, or even better, to be able to find the problems that we had and use that data to find the fixes and then implement them as quickly as possible,” he added.
Following the tests at Nellis, Myers said the planes will return to Eglin 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.
“The more situations that we can put this airplane in the better information we learn. That integration is probably the key thing in the air force, to be able to get multiple different kinds of fighters to work together, to be a more formidable force,” said Juhl.