F-15E Strike Eagles May Have Yet Another Role: Smart Bomb Transporter

The plan isn’t for the jet to drop a full load of smart bombs on enemy targets, but to carry its own reloads and spare bombs for stealth jets.

U.S. Air Force

The idea of an aircraft hauling huge quantities of munitions to serve as a “bomb truck” or “arsenal plane” has gained a lot of traction in recent years. But now the U.S. Air Force is trialing something a little different, with an F-15E Strike Eagle loaded up with weapons, not necessarily for strikes, but for rapid delivery to forward bases in a combat zone.

The Air Force announced today that the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), the “Skulls,” part of the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida had demonstrated the F-15E’s ability to carry 15 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) of various types on a single sortie back on February 22. This was a proof of concept for the service’s Agile Combat Employment initiative, or ACE, which seeks to enhance its independence from well-established airfields, which are increasingly held at risk by potential foes such as China and Russia.

U.S. AIR FORCE

On the left, Major Andrew Swanson, director for the test and F-15E Weapons System Officer, and on the right Major Kevin Fogler, the F-15E pilot who flew the test sortie. Both are assigned to the 85th TES. 

“Strike Eagle can now carry enough JDAMs for an active combat mission, land at a remote location, and reload itself and/or another aircraft — such as an F-35 or F-22 — for additional combat sorties,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Lindaman, commander of the 85th TES.

A photo released together with the press release shows the left-hand side of the F-15E test jet toting six 500-pound-class GBU-38/B JDAMs, in two rows of three, attached to its Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs). While the bottom row of three is standard for the jet, the top row is the new addition. It means that the total capacity is increased from nine to 15 JDAMs — another three JDAM series weapons (either GBU-38s or 2,000-pound-class GBU-31/Bs) can be carried under the fuselage and under the wings.

That top row capacity previously existed on the F-15E, but could only accommodate unguided ordnance. It’s for that reason that the aircraft lacks the interfaces to actually deliver precision-guided munitions from those hardpoints. As for the CFTs themselves, these have long been a feature on the F-15E. However, as you can read about more here, they have always been an option for the air defense-optimized F-15C/D, as well.

The new weapons load-out comes with a caveat, however. While the bottom row of bombs on each side can be dropped on a target, the upper row is for transport only. Think of it as a reload. In this way, a Strike Eagle could theoretically go into combat, drop nine JDAMs, and then recover to a forward base where armorers would move the top row of bombs onto the lower racks, and the jet could go back to the fight.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon

An F-15E over Afghanistan in 2008. The jet carries offensive weapons in the form of three one 2,000-pound JDAM, three 500-pound JDAMs, and two 500-pound Paveway laser-guided bombs.

Under the new concept of operations that the Air Force has been trialing, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. An Air Force spokesperson told The War Zone that the new capability is based on being able to “deploy or employ.” While the fully loaded F-15E could go to war and drop a portion of its new weapons load, it is more likely to serve as a kind of bomb delivery truck, hauling a maximum load of JDAMs to a forward-located base from where they could be loaded on to fifth-generation F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters.

For the F-22, this kind of support could be especially relevant. Prior to ACE, the stealth fighter had been proven in the Rapid Raptor concept, which you can read about in this previous article. However, there has always been some question about how sustainable these kinds of fighter packages are, once deployed to a relatively spartan airfield. The ACE concept now being tested could easily fit into existing specific rapid deployment models like these, as well as the future initiatives the Air Force is still developing.

The advantages of this approach, compared to using a C-130 Hercules airlifter, for example, for the same job, are manyfold. The F-15E can carry the JDAMs fully assembled and ready to employ once it arrives at its operational location. It also has a smaller footprint and can get there a lot faster. Once in theater, the Strike Eagle can not only provide munitions for other jets but also fly combat missions itself as part of an increased operational tempo. Potentially, other weapons could be ferried in a similar way, too.

In this way, a single C-130 is required to transport the personnel required to arm and maintain the combat jets at a remote location, compared to the two that would have previously been required to ferry both airmen and munitions. Using the C-130 model, the JDAMs would also have to be assembled in situ, which is no longer required using the F-15E in ACE mode. The only drawback is the limited range of the F-15E compared to the C-130, and the fact that endurance would also be reduced by the significant weapons payload.

U.S. Air Force

While the jet used in the ACE trials has an “ET” tail code, which is the designator for the 96th Test Wing, this test was planned and executed by the 53rd Wing’s 85th TES. 

It is notable that the ACE demonstrations comes amid an uptick in interest in fighter operations from remote and dispersed locations, with recent field trials having involved both the Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps. For its part, the Air Force has been looking at improving its ability to deploy to a region and rapidly establish new bases. This could be vital in the opening stages of a major war, in which an enemy would likely make concerted efforts to destroy established facilities.

A new report released just yesterday by Indo-Pacific Command, meanwhile, calls for the United States and its allies to “develop locations that provide expeditionary airfields for dispersal and ports for distributed fleet operations” as part of a wider strategy to “create temporary windows of localized air and maritime superiority, enabling maneuver.” Clearly, the F-15E with its ACE modifications could play a significant role in campaigns of this type, whether in the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere.

There is also the possibility that ACE could be further developed, transforming the F-15E from a combat-capable bomb transporter into a platform able to provide other kinds of immediate logistics support. Just this type of concept had previously been examined when the CFTs — also known as FAST packs — were first being developed for the F-15, with one proposal being cargo-carrying, offering the operator what was essentially a conformal baggage pod.

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Early FAST pack configurations drawing from the 1970s.

In the short term at least, the new F-15E weapons load-out is more likely to be seen moving JDAMs in more permissive environments. Indeed, the director of the test, Major Andrew Swanson, an F-15E Weapons System Officer with the 85th TES, said the new tactic could be employed on operations in as little as one month. Looking further ahead, there is also the potential of the Air Force exploiting the forthcoming and even more capable F-15EX for similar kinds of missions. 

With the F-15E community always in high demand, with routine deployments to global hotspots to undertake a range of high-profile missions, it might not be long before we see these “bomb trucks” with their supersized JDAM load-outs, ready to “deploy or employ” in combat scenarios.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com