• July 23, 2024

Why Israel Continues to Embrace the Enduring F-15 Eagle

That’s a strong endorsement for an aircraft that took its maiden flight in the early 1970s.

One of the fighter jets most closely associated with Israel is the F-15 Eagle. The first F-15 arrived in Israel in 1976 and has been in continuous service since then, demonstrating remarkable performance and remaining undefeated. In 1998, the Israeli Air Force introduced an upgraded variant of the aircraft, specifically designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Known as the Ra’am (meaning “Thunder”), it serves as the long-range striking force of the Israeli Air Force, working alongside the new F-35I Adir fighter to ensure Israeli air superiority both presently and in the foreseeable future.

Joint Training of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle and Israeli F-15I Ra’am:

The initial iterations of the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle were primarily focused on air-to-air combat. These large twin-engine, single-seat fighters boasted exceptional visibility with their bubble canopy, a powerful APG-63 radar, and an armament consisting of four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles, four AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles, and an M61 Gatling gun. The F-15’s Pratt & Whitney F100 engines provided an outstanding power-to-weight ratio, enabling the jet to accelerate swiftly in vertical climbs.

Due to its size and versatility, the F-15 was deemed suitable for a multirole version that could take advantage of its power, range, and payload capacity to carry air-to-ground weapons. This led to the development of the F-15E Strike Eagle, which entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1989 and was swiftly deployed in the Persian Gulf conflict of 1991.

 

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The Strike Eagle’s performance during the Gulf conflict piqued Israeli interest. The events of the Gulf conflict did not unfold according to Tel Aviv’s plans, as it faced the challenge of enduring Scud missile attacks launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Israel heeded U.S. pressure and refrained from retaliating, but even if it had chosen to respond, it lacked the essential long-range aircraft and reconnaissance capabilities required to locate Scud launchers in Western Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s continued presence after the war, aimed at expelling his army from Kuwait, meant that Iraq would continue to pose a threat to Israel. Additionally, Iran was in the early stages of developing its nuclear weapons program. A long-range fighter would prove indispensable in deterring or, if necessary, neutralizing potential threats from the east.

 

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An Israeli Strike Eagle would significantly address the Israeli Air Force’s limitations. The incorporation of conformal fuel tanks in the F-15E would provide the necessary range to engage targets situated far away. Moreover, the aircraft’s dual air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities would enable it to operate independently if the need arose. (Back in 1981, Israeli F-15s escorted F-16s on a mission to neutralize the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, which expanded the size of the air group and highlighted the importance of aerial refueling and other forms of support.) The prospect of having a single aircraft capable of fulfilling multiple roles, and one that the Israel Air Force was already familiar with, presented an intriguing option.

 

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Israel made the decision to acquire the F-15I, also known as Ra’am, in May 1994, initially agreeing to purchase twenty-one aircraft designated as Peace Fox V, with an additional option for four more (Peace Fox VI). The order was later expanded to include a total of twenty-five aircraft in 1995. With the F-15’s fifteen years of prior service in the Israeli Air Force, Israeli engineers had a wealth of ideas on how to enhance the platform. Collaborating with Boeing, the manufacturer (which had acquired McDonnell Douglas), Israeli Aerospace Industries played a significant role in contributing advanced avionics to the aircraft.

 

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The F-15I incorporated several indigenous enhancements. The aircraft featured an Israeli-manufactured central computer, a GPS/inertial guidance system, and an Elbit display and sight helmet (DASH). Unlike the Israeli Elisra SPS-2110 Integrated Electronic Warfare System, the F-15I was equipped with electronic warfare capabilities integrated into the F-15E.

The F-15I possessed the ability to carry the same armament as Israeli F-15As and more. Initially, the Ra’am carried both AIM-9L Sidewinder and Python infrared-guided short-range missiles, but over time, it transitioned to primarily utilizing the Python missiles. Additionally, the fighter aircraft was equipped with both the older AIM-7 Sparrow and the newer AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided medium-range missiles.

 

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The F-15I boasts twin engines and a sizable airframe, enabling it to carry an impressive payload of up to 18,000 pounds comprising fuel and munitions. Initially, the Israeli Air Force specified that the jet’s ordnance load could consist of thirty-six Rockeye cluster bombs or six Maverick air-to-ground missiles. However, the F-15I’s air-to-ground munitions repertoire has since expanded to encompass Paveway laser-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bombs, BLU-109 “bunker-buster” bombs, the precision-guided SPICE bomb, and AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles.

The first F-15I arrived in Israel in 1997, with subsequent aircraft being delivered at approximately one per month until the order was completed in 1999. Over the past two decades, these aircraft have been continuously utilized not only in training exercises but also in anti-terrorism operations, such as the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, the Gaza conflict, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Cast Lead. The F-15Is also played a significant role in Israeli contingency plans for striking Iranian nuclear facilities, a strike that was ultimately prevented by the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and Western powers.

 

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The Israeli Air Force’s adoption of the F-35I “Adir” fighter did not diminish their enthusiasm for the F-15. The Air Force continues to refer to the F-15 as its “strategic aircraft,” with the head of the Air Force expressing, “When we need to cover long distances with a limited number of aircraft and a wide range of capabilities, the F-15I excels.”

In 2016, Israel announced an upgrade program to ensure the F-15I remains technologically advanced, which includes a new active electronically scanned array radar and updated avionics. In 2018, there were reports of the Israeli Air Force being undecided between purchasing more F-15I or F-35 fighters, leaning towards the former rather than the latter. If Israel proceeds with additional F-15 acquisitions, it is highly likely that the aircraft will continue to serve for a significant portion of a century. This endorsement demonstrates the enduring value of an aircraft that first took flight in the early 1970s.

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