Video Above: New Raytheon Computing Technology Changes Helicopter, Fighter Jet Attack Potential
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) While the now operational and newly arrived Air Force F-15EX Eagle II may not, by most estimations, rival its 5th-Gen counterparts, in large measure due to a broad consensus that there is indeed an “Imperative for Stealth” given the sophistication of enemy air defenses, there are a handful of what could be considered highly impactful, if not groundbreaking elements of the new jet.
The Air Force’s first F-15EX Eagle II aircraft will take to sky as part of a fast-tracked effort to integrate the new jet into the force and bring its new technologies into the service’s fast-emerging “mesh” networking of combat nodes in multi-domain warfare.
The new upgraded jet, first delivered to the Air Force earlier this year, will introduce a sphere of next-gen types of technical applications to include advanced EW, AESA radar, ultra high-speed computer processing as well as a number of additional adaptations intended to support future combat operations.
An interesting report in Air Force magazine quotes service commanders announcing that the new F-15EX Eagle IIs will participate in the upcoming “Northern Edge exercise in Alaska” wargame combat operation, with a specific focus upon Joint All Domain Command and Control operations.
“We’re bringing up F-15EX … with its capabilities, including the EPAWSS,” or Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System electronic warfare suite, to participate in Northern Edge 2021,” 11th Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. David A. Krumm said from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, during an AFA “Air and Space Warfighters in Action” streaming event, as cited in Air Force Magazine.
While considered a massively upgraded fourth-Gen aircraft balancing itself on an interesting boundary between 4th-and 5th-gen aircraft, the F-15EX is of course slightly less stealthy than full 5th-Gen platforms such as the F-22 and F-35. However, there are a number of not-yet-seen innovations built into the F-15EX with the aim of making it an impactful asset should it be needed for major power warfare.
There are many elements to this, based in large measure on the broad recognition that the 1980s-era aircraft is, essentially, an entirely different jet that it was decades ago. Elements of the basic airframe structure are similar, however the F-15EX is now engineered with a new generation of technologies intended to reshape its tactical significance when it comes to high-end warfare. Many of the innovations woven into the F-15EX also build upon previous upgrade efforts taken up by Boeing to extend the aircraft into the 2040s and beyond.
The F-15EX will fire hypersonic weapons, hit speeds of Mach 2.5, bring new generations radar and EW and operate computer processors able to perform 87billion functions per second. Several years ago, theF-15 was integrated with the fastest jet-computing processor in the world, called the Advanced Display Core Processor which, Boeing innovators have explained, does indeed perform 87billion computing functions per second. The processor was first introduced several years ago.
Interestingly, while the F-15EX is engineered with interfaces and fire control technologies to operate a muchwider sphere of weapons, some of the greatest advantages built into the aircraft may reside in the realm of sensing, networking, threat detection systems and EW. Many of these attributes closely align with the kinds of sensing, computing and EW applications known to be fundamental to 5th-Gen assets such as the F-35. Just how comparable is an F-15EX in this respect, as many regard the F-35s advantage as a so-called “flying computer” to reside in the fidelity, range and integration of its sensing, radar, threat warning and information sharing systems.
One key indicatormay be that the Air Force plans to use the F-15EX as part of crucial Joint Domain Command and Control (JADC2) exercises during the upcoming Northern Edge exercise, as cited by Air Force Magazine. This is quite significant, as sensor-to-shooter multi-domain, multi-mode networking, it is very safe to say, could be described as massive priority for the Air Force as it seeks to further pivot toward preparations for more expansive, disaggregated yet highly networked warfare intended to leverage a kind of “meshed” warspace wherein AI-enabled sensors and weapons can, as senior Air Force weapons developers like to explain it, operate at the “speed of relevance.” The concept, as previously described by Air Force European Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian as a need to connect “any sensor to any shooter,” meaning a highly integrated battlespace could share targeting specifics across unprecedented ranges to execute precision strike operations and stay ahead of an enemy’s decision-making cycle.
Many of the distinct F-15EX attributes reside in the areas of networking, computing, EW, radar and threat warning systems, yet the new jet does incorporate several potentially paradigm-changing propulsion technologiesand attack weapons possibilities. The F-15EX is not only engineered with new levels of “thrust,” but also carries 12 missiles as well as elements of its existing or well known arsenal including the AIM-120D, AIM-9x and standard JDAMS, among others. While there have been massive software upgrades to the AIM-120D and AIM-9x enabling improved targeting guidance, jamming countermeasures and explosives, some of the newer weapons additions could potentially be even more groundbreaking.
The F-15EX will, for example, carry and fire air-launched hypersonic weapons, a decided combat advantage which needs little introduction, as their arrival will naturally transform modern air war when it comes tospeed of attack, enemy response time and stand-off attack range. An air fired missile traveling at 5-times the speed of sound would certainly hit an air or ground targets operating hundreds of miles away in a matter of minutes, all but eliminating an enemy’s ability to respond in time. The Air Force has now also armed its F-15E with the well known Stormbreaker weapon, a first-of-its kind air dropped bomb able to find, track and destroy moving targets from distances as far as 40 nautical miles in all weather conditions. Not only does the Stormbreaker utilize a two-way data link enabling it to adjust course in flight according to a target’s movements, but the weapon is engineered with an often-discussed tri-mode seeker. The “tri-mode” targeting and sensing technology draws upon millimeter wave, infrared and laser targeting guidance to track and eliminate targets.
The Raytheon-built Stormbreaker can also operate as a certain kind of countermeasure to an extent, given that its seeker can adapt to switch targeting modes in the event that one method of guidance is jammed, blocked or thwarted by an enemy. This builds in a key element of redundancy, particularly because the Stormbreaker was developed with inertial measurement, GPS and radio datalinks such as LINK 16. The multiple modes of guidance and navigation could therefore ensure that the weapon continues on to its target in the event that GPS guidance is jammed, denied or taken away by an enemy.
For instance, should a group of enemy fighters seek to maneuver under heavy cloud cover or during a sandstorm or blizzard, laser-spot targeting or even GPS could be quite challenged. Millimeter wave, however, is an all weather targeting guidance system, able to move through or overcome line-of-sight challenges which can cause laser beam attenuation. Infrared targeting could also, for instance, find the heat signature emitting from an enemy armored vehicle and strike through certain weather conditions as well.
Perhaps in part for this reason, Millimeter Wave technology, is increasingly being woven into weapons guidance systems. Millimeter wave is defined as small wavelengths with frequency ranges between 30 and 300 GHz where a total of around 250 GHz bandwidths are available, according to ScienceDirect. As with other kinds of radar, the higher the frequency, the more precisely configured the return signal, a technical phenomenon which can enable a munition to alter course upon detecting movement or position changes.
“The small wavelengths of mmWave frequencies enable large numbers of antenna elements to be deployed in the same form factor thereby providing high spatial processing gains,” as stated in a 2017 publication called “mmWave Massive MIMO, a Paradigm for 5G.” (Mumatz, Rodriguez, Dai)
The Air Force’s upcoming Northern Edge exercise in Alaska is intended to test the boundaries of modern warfare byreplicating a widesphere of advanced threats to include enemy aircraft, air defenses and even space-generate attacks upon air assets.
The service plans to field several new F-15EX Eagle II aircraft as part of its exercise, a wargame intended to place a special focus upon combat networking such as the now well-known Joint All Domain Command and Control program. An essay in Air Force Magazine quotes senior Air Force officials explaining that the F-15EX will indeed be featured as part of the JADC2 portions of the Northern Edge wargame.
To what extent can an F-15EX contribute to or enhance JADC2? While considered an upgraded 4th-Gen operating just below the threshold of its 5th-Gen counterpart, the new F-15EX’s presence may raise the question as to whether its contribution could rival that of a 5th-Gen aircraft given the technological sophistication of its sensing, computing and weaponry?
Computing, threat detection and electronic warfare may all present instances wherein the emerging F-15EX Eagle II could impact any kind of combat-sphere networking operation. The aircraft is now engineered with an EW system called Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System (EPAWSS), a technology engineered to operate in both active or passive mode to perform both offensive and defensive missions. Some of its mission scope includes an ability to find a “line-of-bearing” and jam or disable enemy radio communications by detecting an electronic signature of enemy systems or even approaching weapons. In passive mode, an EW system can in effect “listen” for enemy signatures without itself emitting any kind of detectable electronic signal. This brings greattactical relevance as any kind of outgoing electromagnetic signal can expose or reveal an aircraft’s position, therefore making it more vulnerable. At the same time, having an ability to operate in active mode is also critical as it can enable the aircraft to disable ground-firing systems, air attacks or even enemy drones.
EPAWSS replaced a 1980s legacy system called the Tactical Electronic Warfare suite. Interestingly, a report last year from the Air Force Test Center writes “EPAWSS takes advantage of today’s computing, receiver and transmittertechnologies to provide quicker, smarter response to threats, getting better actionable information to the pilot,” Ed Sabat, Project Development Lead and Civilian Director of Operations, 772nd Test Squadron, said in the Air Force report. The service report further specifies that EPAWSS can succeed in detecting RF and IR (infrared) threats by “acquiring accurate targeting information prior to threat engagement.The F-15EX also incorporates additional networking innovations to include the transition from hydromechanical flight controls to “fly-by-wire,” Boeing developers told The National Interest as far back as several years ago. Fly-by-wire technology is of course greatly enabled by faster computer processing, something the F-15EX incorporates with its Advanced Display Core Processor, a technology which performs 87 billion computing functions per second. As part of the computing and electronics upgrades, the F-15EX Eagle II integrates a 10inch by 19inch digital touch screen data display.
TheF-15EX emerging computer technology is also being leveraged to support an F-35-esque Mission Data Files system, a threat library of information incorporating threat-specific data. The system, described by Boeing experts as of particular relevance to electronic warfare, can draw upon incoming sensor information, bounce it off a database of known threats and identify particular enemy targets such as a Russian enemy fighter jet.
Does all of this mean that an F-15EX could successfully compensate for a lack of stealth with these kinds of weapons guidance technologies, much longer attack ranges, increased sensor sensitivity and fidelity, high-speed computing and threat warning detection? Is there any way the advanced F-15EX could actually compete with a Chinese J-20 or Russian Su-57? The answers to this may not be fully clear and full of a host of differently interpreted variables. If an F-15EX had the long range sensors, varied guidance systems, advanced computing, threat library identification data and vastly improved weapons reach, could it destroy enemy air defenses or 5th-Gen platforms without having to engage itself in close proximity? Should an F-15EX operate with the sensing, AI-enabled computing, threat identification and radar technology and long-range weapons guidance systems in any way comparable to existing 5th-Gen aircraft, then there certainly may be an argument for deploying the F-15EX in a major power warfare scenario amid an attack campaign aimed at establishing air superiority against an advanced rival. After all, part of the rationale for F-35 superiority is based upon the notion that it is designed to find and kill multiple enemy aircraft, and air defenses, before it is itself even seen. Could this be possible for a non-stealthy F-15EX Eagle II? Perhaps. Yet arguably not at the same time, as stealth is considered by many to be an indispensable attribute when it comes to countering advanced air defenses.
This may be the thinking on the part of advocates, however many 5th-Gen advocates are likely to insist that only a true, stealthy 5th-Gen aircraft could succeed in those kinds of advanced, ultrahigh-threat great power warscenarios. Some have gone so far as to suggest that an advanced 4th-Gen aircraft might linger in a kind of liminal zone, meaning it may be far too advanced for counterinsurgency, yet not capable of engaging the most high-end great power threats. Fifth-Gen advocates also make the case for what’s called “cost-benefit,” meaning that even if a single F-35 is more expensive per aircraft than other options, far fewer F-35s can, it is argued, perform the mission of multiple 4th-Gen aircraft, therefore saving money.
These, it seems, may be the most fundamental and pressing questions informing ongoing debates about funding, threat indicators, cost value and other factors as they contribute to planning regarding air fleet asset configuration. The debate is not likely go away, and its resolution may depend in large measure on how each aircraft performs. Perhaps, ultimately, a combination of both aircraft would be optimal? Such thinking may eventually carry the day, the question is what is the numbers mix between them? TBD.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics&Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.