By Bijan Razzaghi
There has been talk of the possibility of retiring the Air Superiority variants of the F-15 eagle. The F-15C currently functions as the secondary Air Superiority fighter for the US air Force backing up a force of 187 F-22 Raptors. There was talk before that the F-15 would be upgraded to the 2040C Standard which included glass cockpits, enhanced electronic warfare capabilities and conformal fuel tanks for increased range. The F-15C remains in service as a result of the halt in F-22 production in 2011. The original 381 F-22s planned were meant to replace all F-15 A/B/C/Ds in Air Force service. The newest F-15C airframes are at least 30 years old and some experts have considered replacing the F-15C. If the F-15C is retired the US Air Force would have 187 dedicated F-22 Air Superiority fighters and the gap for Air Superiority would have to be filled some have wondered if the US Air Forces F-35A could support the F-22 in the Air Superiority role.
The F-35A was originally designed as a strike fighter to replace the Air Forces F-16s , the aircraft became operational with its IOC in August 2016. The mission F-35 pilots train for is to push into enemy territory un detected engage ground targets and be ready to defend it self from air threats while flying in and out of hostile territory. In order to determine if the F-35 could support F-22s in the air superiority role two key factors must be considered. Performance, payload and avionics.
When it comes to the F-35s performance it is powered by a Pratt in Whitney F-135 Afterburning engine producing 43,000ibs of thrust. This gives the F-35A a thrust to weight ratio of 1.07 with 50% fuel. The aircrafts can pull 9gs . The combination of energy and the ability to pull high G maneuver’s gives the aircraft the ability to engage in visual range combat with most modern fighters. What the F-35 does not have that the F-22 has is thrust vectoring engines, and the ability to fly at speed in excess of Mach-2. Russian made SU-30BMs and Su-35s both have thrust vectoring nozzle’s giving them an edge in maneuverability. Despite this minor short coming the F-35s situational awareness is exceptional, 6 cameras placed around the aircraft allow for the pilot to see from all angels around the aircraft in order to evade and attack threats Range is very important for an air superiority fighters as they are not just meant to protect friendly territory, but also fly into enemy territory to clear the enemy skies or escort friendly aircraft. For this task range is important. The F-35 without external fuel tanks on an air to air mission can fly 760nm into enemy territory. The F-15 has a combat radius 1,065nm due the use of external fuel tanks.
When its comes to payload the F-35 has two options the stealth configuration, and the non stealth configuration. In a stealth configuration the F-35 will carry four AIM-120 AMRAAM and a 25mm cannon with 180 rounds of ammunition. The F-15 and F-22 would typically carry 6 AMRAAMs and 2 Sidewinders. Despite being armed the less the F-35 would give commanders the option to have four additional missiles to use against enemy aircraft in an air war. In the non stealth configuration the F-35 can carry 4 AMRAAMs internally plus 8 more externally and 2 more sidewinders. This configuration can also allow F-35s to carry external fuel tanks to extend the range but the data for that capability is not yet available.
When it comes to avionics the F-35 brings something to the table to support the F-22, the sharing of target information by both the aircrafts powerful radars and sensor fusion technology can assist each other in shooting down enemy aircraft at long range while remaining undetected. The F-35 also utilizes the AAQ-40 E/O targeting system (EOTS). This system can detect heat sources from miles away and can be used to detect stealthy aircraft such as the J-20 and T-50 by heat they generate.
The F-35 is a good option to fill in the gap and support the F-22 in the Air Superiority role, yet cannot alone be used in that role. It instead is an extra pair and eyes and missiles that can support the air superiority mission and help clear the skies for strike packages to reach there targets safely.