F-15EX Eagle IIs debut at Exercise Northern Edge 21

Just weeks after their delivery to Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida, the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) first two Boeing F-15EX Eagle IIs have taken to Alaskan skies for Exercise Northern Edge 21, which is being held from May 3-14.

The two aircraft involved in the exercise were serials 20-0001 ‘ET’ and 20-0002 ‘OT’, which were delivered to the USAF in March and April, respectively. A press release, issued by the service on May 5, noted that the purpose of the F-15EX’s participation in Northern Edge is to allow for immediate deep-end testing in a complex jamming environment to gather essential test data for what works and what needs improvement. It is critical to expose the F-15EX to this environment now to make changes early on and allow for an aggressive test and fielding timeline.

F-15EX at Northern Edge 21 [USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray]
The USAF's second production Boeing F-15EX Eagle II - serial 20-0002 ‘OT’ - takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, for a sortie in support of Exercise Northern Edge 21 on May 4, 2021. USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray

Maj Aaron Eshkenazi, an Eagle II pilot with the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), said: “At Northern Edge, we’re assessing how the F-15EX can perform in a jamming environment, to include GPS, radar and Link-16 jamming.

“The other main goal is assessing the EX’s interoperability with fourth- and fifth-generation assets. With more than 60 aircraft airborne during every vul (vulnerability period – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm) at Northern Edge, we’re putting the jet in the role it will perform in once it’s fielded and seeing how it does. So far, it’s been performing really well,” he added.

While participating in Northern Edge, F-15EX pilots, test engineers and others from both the 53rd Wing’s 85th TES and the 96th Test Wing’s 40th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS), are gathering test data points and accomplishing test objectives which include:

  • The performance of technological advancements and subsystems, such as the advanced cockpit system, large area displays and the new digital Helmet Mounted Cueing System for the F-15EX.
  • The performance of the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) in defending both the F-15EX itself and other joint fourth- and fifth-generation platforms.
  • Overall radar performance, as well as the platform’s interoperability with other platforms.

F-15EX at Northern Edge 21 [USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray]
The USAF's first two F-15EX Eagle IIs sit on the ramp at JBER in Alaska on May 4, 2021. The two multi-role fighters are being prepared for a sortie in support of Exercise Northern Edge 21. USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray 

Col Ryan Messer, commander of the 53rd Wing, added: “As an air force, we are charged by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), Gen [Charles Q] Brown Jr, to accelerate change; by bringing the F-15EX to Northern Edge already, we are getting after that objective.

“Northern Edge is the ideal initial stress test for the platform, and we are fully integrating it just like any other aircraft participating. The objective of operational test isn’t for everything to go perfectly, but to identify what needs improvement and Northern Edge, with its opportunities for fourth-/fifth-generation integration in a complex range environment, will show us exactly that,” he added.

Eshkenazi explained that the F-15EX is able to come to an exercise like Northern Edge and safely participate in an operationally complex and dynamic environment because it’s not an altogether new platform. Much of the initial testing typically required on a new platform was accomplished during flight testing with other versions of the F-15 family. This has also allowed for seamless integration between developmental and operational testing between the 53rd Wing, 96th Test Wing and the Air Force Reserve Command’s 84th TES.

F-15EX at Northern Edge 21 [USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray]
An F-15EX gets airborne from JBER for a sortie relating to Exercise Northern Edge 21 on May 4, 2021. The USAF states that approximately 15,000 US service personnel are participating in the joint training exercise, which is being hosted by the US Indo-Pacific Command. USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray

Maj Brett Hughes, an F-15EX pilot with the 40th FLTS, said: “Getting F-15EXs to Northern Edge on time to support the exercise was a massive undertaking by all involved given the tight timelines between aircraft delivery and now. Despite arriving at Eglin less than one-and-a-half months ago and less than two weeks ago for EX-2, both aircraft arrived in time for Northern Edge 21.

“This speaks volumes about the integrated test effort and the confidence we have in the platform to deliver combat capability from the start. The end of the exercise will represent just the beginning of EX testing but proves the rapid test efforts of DT/OT integration and showcasing innovation through integration,” he added.

During Northern Edge, some pilots are flying the F-15EX for just the second time in their careers, which showcases how smooth the transition is from the legacy F-15C Eagle to the Eagle II. Furthermore, the F-15EX is flying with Suite 9.1 ‘X’ – a version of Operational Flight Program Suite 9.1, which is comparable to Suite 9.1 ‘RR’ that F-15E Strike Eagles and F-15Cs are currently testing and preparing to field operationally.

Northern Edge 21 is a US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) exercise designed to provide high-end fighter training to develop and improve joint interoperability, while enhancing the combat readiness of participating forces in a realistic war setting. This is done by providing a venue for large force employment training and multi-domain operations; tactical training for the full spectrum of conflict; execute and advance adaptive basing joint tactics, techniques and procedures; advance live-virtual-constructive capabilities; and support USINDOPACOM's experimental initiatives. The F-15EX’s participation supports the development of many of these objectives.

F-15EX [USAF/1st Lt Karissa Rodriguez]
Boeing F-15EX Eagle II - serial 20-0001 'ET' - arrived at Eglin AFB, Florida, on March 11, 2021. This initial example of the multi-role fighter will be used to support an aggressive developmental and operational test campaign. USAF/1st Lt Karissa Rodriguez

In total, the USAF intends to acquire 144 examples of the Eagle II from Boeing. These aircraft will be used to replace the air force’s ageing Boeing F-15C/D Eagle fighter fleet, which boasts an average age of more than 37 years. According to the service, these two matured variants of the Eagle family are rapidly approaching the end of their useful service lives, adding that these aircraft are already operating on the margins of structural integrity.

The Oregon Air National Guard’s (ANG’s) 173rd Fighter Wing (FW) at Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base (ANGB) in Klamath Falls, Oregon, will become the first unit to operate the F-15EX Eagle II in 2024. The 173rd FW is responsible for training F-15C/D pilots and will continue to serve as the formal training unit for F-15EX aircrews.

The 142nd FW ‘Redhawks’ – also a part of the Oregon ANG – will serve as the first operational unit for the Eagle II. When equipped with the new fighter, the wing will be responsible for conducting critical homeland defence alert missions from Portland ANGB.