US Air Force Tests F-15EX And F-35 With Advanced Weapon Systems

F-15 Eagles and Strike Eagles from the 53rd Wing and 96th Test Wing sit on the ramp at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska during exercise Northern Edge 21. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members participated in the joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, May 3-14, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

As exercise Northern Edge 21 concludes, the 53rd Wing is returning home having achieved major test objectives for multiple weapons systems May 3-14. 

In addition to F-15EX Eagle II deep end testing and B-52 Stratofortress long-range kill chain milestones for hypersonic weapons, the 53rd Wing’s F-35A Lightning IIs, MQ-9 Reapers, F-15C Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles, all progressed their software, hardware, and tactics while at Northern Edge. 

“Northern Edge is an essential event for operational tests,” said Col. Ryan Messer, 53rd Wing commander. “It is one of only a handful of exercises that combine great power competition-level threat complexities with the joint interoperability necessary to realistically inform our test data. The individuals in the 53rd Wing continue to inspire me with how they challenge themselves and their programs in complex environments, ensuring we deliver the most lethal, ready and capable force for our nation.”

By platform, here is what the 53rd Wing operationally tested while at Northern Edge 21.

F-35A Lightning II

The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, recently fielded a new Operational Flight Program, Suite 30P06 to the combat air forces’ F-35s. As the new OFP rolls out, Northern Edge allowed operational testers to evaluate how the software functioned in a realistic threat environment to both inform the tactics associated with the software and provide greater feedback to the Combat Air Forces. 

An F-35 Lightning II from the 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., taxis on a runway at exercise Northern Edge 21. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members participated in the joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces May 3-14, 2021, on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

“At Northern Edge, we are validating our assumptions that we made in the OFP test process on a grand, realistic scale and incorporating WEPTAC Tactics Improvement Proposals,” said Maj. Scott Portue, 422 TES F-35 pilot. 

These Tactics Improvement Proposals, known as “TIPs,” are established at the annual weapons and tactics conference. TIPs being tested at Northern Edge by the 422 TES include F-35 emissions control or minimizing the F-35’s emissions to get closer to the adversary, and fourth-to-fifth (and fifth-to-fourth) electronic attack tactics, techniques and procedures.

“As a fifth-gen. asset, we have stealth, so we can physically get closer, but we may not have all the weapons that a fourth-gen. aircraft, like a (F-15) Strike Eagle, does. We’re trying to figure out how we (fourth- and fifth-generation platforms) can benefit each other so that we can get closer to the adversary,” Portue said.

Portue explained that the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System, or EPAWSS, on an F-15, for example, can benefit an F-35 by allowing them to get closer to the enemy without using their own radar or employing their own EA (electronic attack). Additionally, the F-35 testers accomplished missions in the Gulf of Alaska, exploring maritime tactics and joint interoperability. 

“When we talk about fourth- and fifth-gen. integration, we absolutely mean joint integration. Northern Edge is the biggest melting pot that we have as a joint force, in which we can test the most cutting-edge technologies, OFPs (operational flight program) and tactics and see how they match up against a near-peer threat,” Portue said.

MQ-9 Reaper

While at Northern Edge, the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron operated the MQ-9 Reaper out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and focused on test of new pods, including the hardened targeting pod and Reaper Defense Electronic Support System, and WEPTAC TIPs. 

“The hardened targeting pod has an electro-optical counter-counter measure and testing that is one of our objectives at Northern Edge,” said Lt. Col. Mike Chmielewski, 556th TES commander,. “We’re also demonstrating the capability of the RDESS pod, of which there is currently only one in the world.”

The RDESS pod provides the MQ-9 the ability to find and detect threats in the Northern Edge environment. Because of the newness of the RDESS program, much of the RDESS testing at Northern Edge informed test data points for both developmental and operational testers. Furthermore, RDESS supports the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center’s smart sensor program.

Additionally, the 556 TES tested the anti-jam, anti-spoofing, or AJAS, system TIP, which utilized new aircraft antenna capability to see its impacts on GPS effectiveness in a denied environment.

Finally, the MQ-9 utilized the Auto Take-Off and Landing system on the transit to and from Eielson AFB, advancing the plane’s divert capability and flexibility while under satellite control.

F-15EX Eagle II

Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (F-15E, EX)

In a complex electronic attack environment like Northern Edge, EPAWSS was put to the test in the F-15E and F-15EX. 

While at Northern Edge, the first-ever four-ship of F-15Es equipped with EPAWSS flew May 14, employing EPAWSS as it would be used in a tactical formation. 

Lt. Co.l Reade Loper, Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force F-15E test director, shared the significance of four F-15Es flying together with the most current version of EPAWSS in a large force, dense-threat environment, explaining that operating in an environment like Northern Edge uncovers opportunities for growth in the program that might otherwise take months to reveal during home-station flying. It was also a chance to exercise the utility of the entire system working together.

Though designed as a self-protection system, at Northern Edge, testers also explored using EPAWSS to support the WEPTAC TIP of fourth-to-fifth and fifth-to-fourth generation electronic attack effectiveness. 

Loper also explained that while at Northern Edge, BAE Systems was able to rapidly reprogram the mission data files for EPAWSS to improve its ability over just one to two days.

Infrared Search and Track

During Northern Edge 21, F-15C pilots completed operational flight testing on the Legion Pod, an Infrared Search and Track, or IRST, pod, in the rigorous environment of Alaska ranges. Northern Edge was a “graduation” test event for the pod, prior to fielding.

Maj. Aaron Osborne, 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron F-15C pilot, explained that IRST allows pilots to have an “out-of-band” sensor to find what an electronically scanned radar cannot, particularly in the event of an electronic attack. 

“IRST pod is an added capability to the warfighter and is proving capable in the dense electronic attack threat environment of Northern Edge,” Osborne said. “While at Northern Edge, I’m using the pod not as a test pilot, but exactly as I would in the CAF or in operations. We’re checking the final boxes of the test plan here before the pod fields and using it with the latest operational flight program.”

F-15C/E Suite 9.1 RR (F-15C, E)

That “latest operational flight program” is Suite 9.1RR (Re-Release). Suite 9.1 RR is the next installment of the F-15 Operational Flight Program and what the 53rd Wing’s and 96th Test Wing’s F-15Cs and F-15Es at Northern Edge have. As previously mentioned, the F-15EX is currently flying with a similar OFP, Suite 9.1X. 

“We finished test on Suite 9.1 in February 2021, and it will field to the CAF in the fall,” Loper said. “Suite 9.1RR was an effort between ACC (Air Combat Command) and AFLCMC (Air Force Lifecycle Management Center) to provide more capability to operational units earlier. On the normal timeline, Suite 9.2, wouldn’t field until late spring of 2023. Suite 9.1RR was able to use available funds to develop an additional OFP so that the CAF doesn’t have to wait almost two years for software upgrades.”  

Perhaps the biggest improvement with Suite 9.1RR is new hardware called Data Transfer Module 2, DTM II. The DTM is how data is transferred from mission planning computers to the aircraft. The current DTM is the same model and method that was developed for the Eagle (C-model and E-model) in the 1980s, and though the memory capacity has grown slightly over the years, the F-15’s latest aircraft processor, Advanced Display Core Processor 2, and OFP have outgrown the memory capacity of the current DTM.

“With 9.1RR, we’ve been able to upgrade the entire data transfer system to keep up with our new software. DTM II increases in memory capacity from 2MB to 256GB,” Loper said. “With the increase in memory and processing power, we can now add all sorts of new tactical capabilities to the aircraft.” 

As Suite 9.1 completed testing in February, Northern Edge provided essential initial data for Suite 9.1 RR, which will continue flight testing through fall of 2021. Suite 9.1RR is set to field in spring of 2022.

In summary, Northern Edge 21 provided an ideal joint test environment for initial, culminating and milestone tests for multiple platforms in the 53rd Wing. The progress made at Northern Edge 21 would not have been possible without the combined effort from operational and developmental testers in the operational flight program combined test force, 40th Flight Test Squadron, and the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron, as well as maintenance support from the of 57th Wing and 96th Test Wing. 

NE21 is a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercise designed to provide high-end, realistic warfighter training, develop and improve joint interoperability, and enhance the combat readiness of participating forces. This is done by providing a venue for large force employment training and multi-domain operations; tactical training for the full spectrum of conflict; execute and advance adaptive basing joint tactics, techniques, and procedures; advance live-virtual-constructive capabilities; and support U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s experimental initiatives.

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