As The War Zone predicted, it didn’t take too long for the U.S. Air Force’s “bomb truck” F-15E Strike Eagle configuration to appear in an operational theater. Jets featuring the modified munitions carriage, allowing each to haul up to 15 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) of various types simultaneously, recently arrived in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations.
The aim of the revised loadout configuration is not to put more bombs on targets but to bring larger quantities of smart munitions to deployed locations as part of the Agile Combat Employment initiative, or ACE, which seeks to enhance its independence from well-established airfields, which are increasingly held at risk by potential foes. The 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS), the “Panthers,” completed the first of these missions for the type when six of its F-15Es relocated to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, touching down there April 25 after flying from an undisclosed location — likely Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan. The unit is home-based at RAF Lakenheath, England, but had already been deployed to CENTCOM.
“These F-15Es are carrying what is called a ‘tac-ferry’ loadout,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Culver, 494th EFS Director of Operations. “What that means is we can maneuver using Agile Combat Employment, and be postured to go forward from a main operating base. This is the next step for the Air Force in Agile Combat Employment.”
“The Panthers train for this routinely back in [U.S. Air Forces Europe], so we’re always ready to flex,” Culver added. “We have the ability to be unpredictable, and we have additional flexibility with multiple sorties worth of ammunition available. The Panthers are obviously pumped to be part of this.”
“We were asked to come out and support combat missions with a very short turnaround, and with the bombs not being built previously here for us,” said Captain Jessica Niswonger, 494th EFS weapon system officer and mission planner. “By carrying more bombs than we’d actually carry to drop, we’re setting up the initial days of combat.”
The concept of loading up an F-15E with extra weapons that can rapidly be delivered to forward bases was showcased in a proof-of-concept by the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), the “Skulls,” part of the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, back in February this year.
During that test, an F-15E demonstrated the potential ability to carry 15 JDAMs on a single sortie. However, on that occasion, only six 500-pound-class GBU-38/B JDAMs were attached to the Conformal Fuel Tank (CFT) on one side of the jet, in two rows of three. The top row of precision-guided munitions is new, although these bombs can’t actually be dropped during the mission. In the past, however, F-15Es have carried dumb ordnance on these same stations.
Photos from Al Dhafra show the jets now carrying six 500-pound-class JDAMs on each fuselage side, plus four Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) on the centerline station. The jet also carries the standard defensive armament of two AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles under the wings.
The forward-deployed 494th EFS will begin flying air-tasking orders immediately in support of U.S. Central Command, making use of these additional munitions that are fully assembled and ready to employ, rather than having to wait for them to be transported by airlifted and then ‘built up’ in situ. A C-130 is still required to support an F-15E deployment of this kind, carrying personnel to arm and maintain the jets, but previously two of these transports would have been required for moving the same quantity of airmen and munitions. Reducing that burden would be a significant issue in a peer conflict, in which tactical and strategic airlift would already be at a premium.
Of course, the munitions carried by the F-15Es could also be used by other aircraft flying combat missions in the same theater, an especially useful function for the fifth-generation F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters, which typically feature much-reduced offensive weapons loads compared to the Strike Eagle.
While we expected the tac-ferry loadout to first appear in the U.S. Central Command theater, it’s clear that the concept has enormous relevance for future deployments in less permissive environments, too. We have frequently reported on the U.S. military’s efforts to develop procedures for operating fighters from remote and dispersed locations, including rapidly establishing new bases. In the kind of conflict that would be fought against China or Russia, established airfields would very likely be destroyed or at least temporarily put out of action at the first opportunity, making these kinds of alternatives all the more important.
In these kinds of scenarios, using the F-15Es to haul the weapons around is a good option, especially if they are already heading to a forward operating location. In this way, the munitions would arrive not only swiftly but in a ready-to-use configuration. Using the CFTs, or FAST packs, F-15Es could potentially carry other types of cargo, too, although there are currently no plans to develop this further that we know of. The Air Force’s latest F-15EX Eagle II will offer even better load-hauling capabilities, with a 28 percent larger payload and two more weapons stations.
In the meantime, the “bomb truck” F-15E configuration looks set to become a more regular sight wherever the Air Force’s go-to strike fighter is required.
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