The Air Force’s upcoming Northern Edge exercise in Alaska is intended to test the boundaries of modern warfare by replicating a wide sphere of advanced threats to include enemy aircraft, air defenses, and even space-generate attacks upon air assets.
The service plans to field several new F-15EX Eagle II aircraft as part of its exercise, a wargame intended to place a special focus upon combat networking such as the now well-known Joint All Domain Command and Control program. An essay in Air Force Magazine quotes senior Air Force officials explaining that the F-15EX jet will indeed be featured as part of the joint all-domain command and control portions of the Northern Edge wargame.
To what extent can an F-15EX contribute to or enhance joint all-domain command and control? While considered an upgraded fourth-generation operating just below the threshold of its fifth-generation counterpart, the new F-15EX jet’s presence may raise the question as to whether its contribution could rival that of a fifth-generation aircraft given the technological sophistication of its sensing, computing, and weaponry?
Computing, threat detection, and electronic warfare (EW) may all present instances wherein the emerging F-15EX Eagle II could impact any kind of combat-sphere networking operation. The aircraft is now engineered with an EW system called Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System (EPAWSS), a technology engineered to operate in both active or passive mode to perform both offensive and defensive missions. Some of its mission scope includes an ability to find a line-of-bearing and jam or disable enemy radio communications by detecting an electronic signature of enemy systems or even approaching weapons. In passive mode, an EW system can in effect listen for enemy signatures without itself emitting any kind of detectable electronic signal. This brings great tactical relevance as any kind of outgoing electromagnetic signal can expose or reveal an aircraft’s position, therefore making it more vulnerable. At the same time, having the ability to operate in active mode is also critical as it can enable the aircraft to disable ground-firing systems, air attacks, or even enemy drones.
EPAWSS replaced a 1980s legacy system called the Tactical Electronic Warfare suite. Interestingly, a report last year from the Air Force Test Center notes that EPAWSS takes advantage of today’s computing, receiver, and transmitter technologies to provide quicker, smarter response to threats, getting better actionable information to the pilot, Ed Sabat, Project Development Lead and Civilian Director of Operations, 772nd Test Squadron, said in the Air Force report. The service report further specifies that EPAWSS can succeed in detecting radio frequency and infrared threats by acquiring accurate targeting information prior to threat engagement. The F-15EX also incorporates additional networking innovations to include the transition from hydromechanical flight controls to fly-by-wire, Boeing developers told the National Interest as far back as several years ago. Fly-by-wire technology is of course greatly enabled by faster computer processing, something the F-15EX jet incorporates with its Advanced Display Core Processor, a technology that performs 87 billion computing functions per second. As part of the computing and electronics upgrades, the F-15EX Eagle II integrates a 10-inch by 19-inch digital touch screen data display.
The F-15EX emerging computer technology is also being leveraged to support an F-35-esque Mission Data Files system, a threat library of information incorporating threat-specific data. The system, described by Boeing experts as of particular relevance to electronic warfare, can draw upon incoming sensor information, bounce it off a database of known threats and identify particular enemy targets such as a Russian enemy fighter jet.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters’ Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.