Officials took a step forward in the F-15E Strike Eagle's continuous technological evolution as the Air Force's most versatile combat aircraft here Jan. 18.
Officials from the 46th Test Wing launched the fourth generation fighter for the first time with a new and improved radar system, the APG-82(V)1.
The APG-82 uses active electronically scanned array radar technology composed of numerous small solid-state transmit and receive modules. The standard radar, APG-70, is a mechanically scanned array housed in the nose of the aircraft. Although the current F-15E radar has undergone numerous updates and upgrades, it is still the same system the aircraft had on its maiden flight more than 24 years ago.
"We've been able to get more out of it, but at this point it's pretty much maxed out," said 1st Lt. Nathaniel Meier, a radar modernization project manager with the Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force.
The new radar lacks the motors and hydraulics of the old system and includes a new avionics and cooling system.
Aircraft radar continuously sends out and receives energy to identify objects or targets around it. Due to its unique capabilities, the F-15E radar operates as air-to-air and air-to-ground radar, officials said.
"One AESA-equipped F-15E can detect and track multiple targets simultaneously and gain the same battle picture and prosecute the same number of attacks that currently require several mechanically scanned radar assets," said Brad Jones, the Boeing director for U.S. Air Force development programs. "Adding AESA multiplies the effectiveness of the F-15E."
The advantage AESA radar has over an MSA is its near-instantaneous ability to redirect its focus from air-to-air to air-to-ground mode, officials said. By no longer having to wait for the array to physically move to a new area of interest, the aircrew receives better situational awareness in less time, Lieutenant Meier said.
The four-year-old project borrowed from existing technology to create the new system. The array system was taken from F-15C Eagle models and the avionics were borrowed from F-18 Hornets.
The reason for the change was to improve the entire aircraft's reliability, availability and maintainability, Lieutenant Meier said. The new radar works as a plug-in-play system with newer, easily replaceable parts, the lieutenant said. It's expected to have approximately a 20-fold improvement in aircraft reliability, he said. The aircraft also stays mission-ready.
An average failure for the radar component was previously measured in tens of hours and can now be measured in hundreds of hours, Lieutenant Meier said.
The APG-82 has fewer moving parts and the new equipment lasts longer, which cuts down on the time needed for repairs, he said.
The modification of the aircraft, which began in June 2010, was a concerted effort by members of Boeing, the 46th Maintenance Group, Raytheon, the 46th Technical Support Squadron and the OFP CTF.
"Without their determination, (F-15E) RMP would not have been anywhere close to making its first flight," Lieutenant Meier said.
The developmental test flight was considered successful, and the aircrew members said they liked what they saw during the flight.
"There are huge performance increases," said Maj. Raja Chari, a 40th Flight Test Squadron member and the pilot for the first flight. "We're getting the benefit of two decades worth of technology. From what we saw in this flight, we're heading in the right direction."
The developmental test process is about building incrementally into testing more complicated functions of the equipment and finding any flaws and problems based on usage in specific test profiles.
"Really, the engineers put in the time and hard work," Major Chari said. "We have the easy part of seeing if it will do what they thought it would. It was interesting to see the engineers reacting and diagnosing the issues right away, based on our feedback."
Capt. Chris Dupin, a 40th FTS member and the weapons system officer for the first flight, said he noticed improved capabilities during the initial flight.
He said the radar was able to detect F-16s much farther away than ever before.
"The kill chain for anything is the ability to detect, identify, target and engage a threat," Captain Dupin said. "If we can detect an air target earlier or farther away, that leaves more time and space to complete the rest of the kill chain. Completing the kill chain faster and earlier means we're better able to gain or maintain airspace superiority."
The biggest "test" facing the project involves combining avionics and array systems from other aircraft and incorporating them into a totally different one.
"By using (government and commercial) off-the-shelf equipment, the Air Force is able to save a large amount of the development costs, but the challenge is integrating these new systems and making them work as one," Lieutenant Meier said.
Developmental testing is scheduled to continue through 2012, but the OFP CTF, being a shared unit of the 46th Test Wing and 53rd Wing, is unique in that its members can perform developmental tests while incorporating early operational testing.
Officials have begun modifying a 53rd Wing F-15E with the new radar and they plan to begin some of the operational type of testing as early as March.
The next stage of testing for the radar will be conducted by Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center officials before being incorporated in all F-15Es beginning in approximately 2014.