f15e, ace, usaf

TSgt. Matthew Smith, USAF/DVIDS

  • The U.S. Air Force recently discovered it can strap up to 7,500 pounds of precision-guided bombs to a F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet.
  • Rather than drop the bombs itself, the F-15E could then fly the bombs to forward air bases, getting them into action on newer jets faster than ever before.
  • The Air Force is preparing to distribute its warplanes across smaller, less conspicuous airports and airfields in a future conflict, making them harder for an adversary to find.

    The U.S. Air Force has successfully flown an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet with 15 bombs strapped to the outside. It’s the first step toward getting the Air Force to operate from remote, austere air bases near the front lines, and it shaves both time and resources from the task of getting bombs into the fight.

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    This demonstration involved a Strike Eagle from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. The two-seat, multi-role version of the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter carried six GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bombs on a single side of the aircraft. The Air Force says this confirms the F-15E’s ability to carry a total of 15 JDAMs at a time—six more than it’s rated to carry into combat.

    f15, ace, gbu38

    The 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron successfully flew an F-15E Strike Eagle carrying six JDAMs on a single side of the aircraft on Feb 22, 2021, showcasing a proof of concept for Agile Combat Employment, known as “ACE.”

    U.S. Air Force

    The Air Force photo above shows an F-15E equipped with the six JDAMs attached to the left side of the fuselage. The GBU-38 is an unguided, 500-pound Mk. 82 general purpose bomb fitted with the JDAM guidance kit. The kit allows the bomb to steer itself to a set of GPS coordinates specified by the F-15 crew and is accurate to within 16 feet or less of the target.

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    The F-15E does drop GBU-38s as part of its normal weapons payload, but this test was different. In this case, the Air Force wanted to see how many JDAMs a Strike Eagle could transport—not carry into combat.

    Under the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE) plan, the service is learning how to operate aircraft from more (and smaller) bases closer to the front line, but distributed over a wider area. These smaller bases could include civilian airfields or even strips of highway. The idea is to spread out air power across the front line, making it difficult for an adversary to shut down by crippling a handful of bases.


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    Here’s a video from earlier this month of Air Force F-35As based at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska participating in an ACE exercise on the island of Guam. The F-35As are practicing taking off from an old World War II airstrip on the island, one that could be a stand-in for a newly conquered island airstrip in the South China Sea:

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    Right now, getting an austere base up and running to drop bombs requires two C-130J Super Hercules transports: one to carry the bombs, and another to carry the personnel who move the bombs.

    Under the ACE, the F-15E could act as a “bomb truck,” shuttling ready-to-drop bombs from larger “hub” bases to smaller, more austere “spoke” bases. One C-130J is still required to carry personnel, but Strike Eagles would carry the bombs themselves to the front.

    F-15Es could move the bombs faster and deliver them complete, with guidance and tail fin kits already assembled. In the event an F-15E runs into enemy fighters, it would also have a better chance of survival in a war.

    usaf boeing f 15e strike eagle flying enroute above a layer of clouds with a full load of bombs

    A slightly dated photo of an F-15E equipped with unguided cluster bombs. The Strike Eagle first entered U.S. Air Force service in the late 1980s and doesn’t have the radar-evading features of later aircraft.

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    Once at the base, the bombs would be ready to load onto other fighters, particularly the F-22 Raptor and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, both of which can carry the GBU-38 in their internal weapons bays.

    The F-15E is a 1980s-era strike fighter fighter that lacks the stealth needed to survive in the most dangerous air defense environments. In the early days of a future conflict, stealth jets like the F-22 and F-35 will have the best chance of survival. But the ACE concept ensures that older planes like the Strike Eagle will still have a crucial role to fill.


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