What has happened to the Boeing F-15SA?

Photo: Boeing

 

Boeing, like many other manufacturers, has long been reluctant to speak openly about its projects for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). However, much has been made of the F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) project that will deliver what is arguably the most advanced F-15 Eagle to date. What Boeing currently calls its Advanced Eagle is a sanitized term for the F-15SA, which includes many of the benchmark traits for any future Eagle applications.

The first F-15SA flew to great accolade in February 2013, and we’ve seen evidence of as many as 20 production aircraft having flown. But not a single aircraft has been delivered to date…

Three examples of the F-15SA (serials 12-1001, 12-1002 and 12-1003) have been engaged in protracted flight test at Palmdale, California, with other production airframes having been noted on shakedown flights from St. Louis on regular occasions.

The F-15SA is the first Eagle to feature digital fly-by-wire (DFBW) controls and it has therefore been the subject of a rigorous flight-test program — with an 18-month test period having initially been planned. It was widely-reported that unspecified snags with the new DFBW control system led to delays in the delivery program, and as of last August deliveries were thought to be imminent. Indeed, Boeing would only comment that things were back on track. However, little further news has emerged in the last year.

The new Saudi jets feature the BAE Systems Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS) and Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) not to mention Raytheon AN/APG-63(V)3 AESA radar, AN/AAS-42 IRST, a Wide Field Of View (WFOV) head-up display and possibly the new large area cockpit displays. Short of the canted fins, Conformal Weapons Bays (CWBs), and likely the other minor stealthy refinements, the F-15SA ticks all of the boxes that were mooted for the F-15SE Silent Eagle.

Saudi Arabia has 84 new-build F-15SAs on order aircraft, plus upgrades for the remaining F-15S fleet to the same standard.

In 2015, Boeing released a video that confirmed at least one of the Palmdale test aircraft (12-1003 – note the serial on the ejection seat) has been employed to trial the new Digital Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (DJHMCS) on the F-15. Boeing Test and Evaluation chief F-15 test pilot Dan ‘Dragon’ Draeger and a ‘USAF Weapons Systems Officer’ were depicted wearing the new helmets for a ‘first evaluation flight’ at Palmdale recently. The new digital JHMCS uses LED technology for ‘greater reliability and visual acuity’, according to the news release. ‘You don’t have to use high voltage in order to drive the new Light Emitting Diode display which improves maintenance reliability significantly,’ says Greg Hardy, Boeing manager, TACAIR Advanced Display Systems. ‘Couple this technology with a sharper image and improved day and night capabilities using color projected video and symbology and a better balanced helmet, and you have an advanced targeting solution that is more reliable and less fatiguing for pilots to wear.’

The DJHMCS is part of the new JHMCS II product line and it is touted as ‘an economical but significant upgrade’ that features ‘all new’ aspects of JHMCS II, but is aimed as a retrofit for existing JHMCS-capable platforms and crucially it incorporates a new night capability.

Many of these new features were planned as part of the stealthy F-15SE Silent Eagle, which failed to attract direct interest from new customers. Indeed, Silent Eagle enhancements may never be fully realized as Boeing was largely relying on customer support to bring these to reality and the loss in South Korea effectively put paid to the key stealthy improvements. The conformal weapons bays (CWBs) were, for example, part of the industrial offset with Korean industry. The CWBs had two doors and two weapon mounts, the upper, side-opening door carrying a rail launcher for an AIM-120 AMRAAM or an AIM-9-type missile, or a launcher for a single 500lb or 1,000lb bomb or two Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs). The lower door accommodated a trapeze-plus-ejector mount for an AIM-120, or for a single 500lb or 1,000lb bomb or two SDBs. The CWBs would also accommodate a small amount of fuel. Having funded an initial test period, including firing an AIM-120 from the CWB in July 2010, Boeing was ready to develop a number of the Silent Eagle options with customer support as prospective buyers came forward.

Although Seoul opted for the F-35, the Saudi deal paved the way for some of the less noticeable elements of the Silent Eagle to come to fruition, notably the advanced cockpit, DFBW, and DEWS. Various elements that have been taken up by Boeing’s export customers over the past decade are now on the table to be offered as upgrades for other existing F-15 customers — including the USAF. Indeed, Boeing is emphasizing the increased weapon carriage offered by the F-15SA as the DFBW opens up the new outer wing stations 1 and 9. However, the handling implications of these outer stations predude non-DFBW Eagles from utilizing them.

News in August revealed basing plans for the RSAF’s F-15SA fleet, including the upgraded F-15S aircraft. Little is new over and above the existing F-15S units. The 55th Squadron will act as the Formal Training Unit (FTU) at Khamis Mushait (King Khaled Air Base) alongside the 6th Squadron. The 92nd Squadron will remain at Dhahran (King Abdulaziz Air Base) and will re-equip with SAs, with the 29th Squadron to become the first new F-15SA unit and will be established at Tabuk (King Faisal Air Base). Additional fighters are likely to be stationed at the new King Saud Air Base in Hafr Al Batin province, which commenced full scale development in March 2016.

We await further news on the first F-15SA deliveries…

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