The Eagle

Part 3 - Into Combat

Æthelberht, Going Postal
A flight line of Israeli F-15C “Baz” – note the kill markings for Syrian aircraft shot down

In part two of this series we examined the design features and capabilities of the F-15 and how they compared to its predecessor. In this third part we’re going to take a look at the combat record of the air superiority Eagles.

Officially at least, the F-15 has a kill to loss record of 103:0. There have been numerous instances of opposing air forces claiming to have shot down F-15s but they all have one thing in common – no evidence to back the claims up in the form of camera footage, radar tapes or wreckage. These claims are all anecdotal in nature.

I suppose at this point we should mention the F-14 Tomcat and its kill tally. In US Navy service the F-14 only ever shot down four aircraft for no losses. These were two Libyan Su-22 Fitters in the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident, and another engagement in 1989 40 miles north of Tobruk where a further two Libyan MiG-23 Floggers were shot down. The F-14 was exported to Iran before the Islamic revolution and saw extensive combat in the Iran-Iraq War. Osprey published a book in 2004 “Iranian F-14 Units In Air Combat” written by Tom Cooper. In this book Cooper credits the F-14 with a 164:1 kill to loss record in air to air combat. This is the number you’ll most commonly see attributed to the Tomcat and it’s largely down to this book. It is however, disputed with many claiming Cooper’s sources aren’t reliable and can’t be verified one way or the other. I’ve even seen one article where it is claimed the Iranian Tomcats racked up 228 kills.

Reliable records from the Iran-Iraq war are somewhat akin to rocking horse faeces. As such it’s incredibly difficult to reliably verify or substantiate claims of exactly how many Iraqi aircraft Iranian Tomcats shot down. It is worth bearing in mind the F-14 saw an awful lot of combat in the Iraq-Iraq War and could very possibly have racked up a bigger kill tally than the F-15.

The USAF was the first and primary user of the F-15. It received its first F-15 in 1974 but actual combat units didn’t start receiving their aircraft until 1976. Unsurprisingly the first export customer for the F-15 was Israel and they received their first F-15A/B in 1977. The Israelis named the aircraft “Baz” which is Hebrew for falcon. In 1979 during Israeli military operations against targets in Lebanon, Israeli ace Moshe Melnik shot down a Syrian MiG-21 Fishbed whilst flying an F-15A Baz, this being the F-15’s first kill.

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Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Moshe Melnik leaves the cockpit of an F-15C Baz after completing his final flight before retirement in 2003

During Israeli operations over Lebanon over the next couple of years Israeli F-15s shot down 13 Syrian MiG-21 Fishbed and two Syrian MiG-25 Foxbat.

On 7th June 1981 the Israelis carried out Operation Opera (more popularly known as Operation Babylon) to destroy a French built nuclear reactor ten miles outside of Baghdad. The strike force consisted of 8 F-16 each carrying a pair of Mk.84 2,000lb bombs and was escorted by 6 F-15. The reactor was hit by 8 of the 16 bombs dropped and was destroyed. No aircraft were lost. Of note is the youngest pilot on the mission, 27 year old Ilan Ramon flying one of the F-16s later went on to become Israel’s first astronaut and was killed on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
An Israeli F-15C Baz – note the reconnaissance pod mounted under the fuselage, the bulged “FAST” pack conformal fuel tanks on the side of the fuselage and the indigenous Israeli Python 4 air to air missiles on the wing pylons

In the 1982 Lebanon War Israeli F-15s shot down a total of 23 Syrian MiG-21 Fishbed, 17 MiG-23 Flogger and one Gazelle light helicopter.

In 1985 the Israelis carried out Operation Wooden Leg where 8 F-15s supported by a Boeing 707 tanker flew nearly 1,500 miles to bomb the PLO headquarters in Tunis. This was beyond the range of any other combat aircraft in the Israeli inventory and marked the first operational use of the hitherto air superiority F-15 in a strike role.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
The Israelis were the first to utilise the F-15 as a strike aircraft. Here an Israeli F-15C Baz is seen carrying three 1,000lb GBU-32 JDAM GPS guided bombs. Also note the FAST Pack conformal fuel tanks not normally fitted to the USAF F-15C

All told Israeli F-15s have racked up 61 kills since they entered service. In fact the Israelis have extensively modified and upgraded their F-15s over the years so much so they have become quite distinct from the original American models. It would seem that the Israelis absolutely love their F-15s and hold them in very high regard, so much so that they have recently taken on a number of 40 year old F-15D from the US Air National Guard and are re-furbishing them to modern Israeli standards. It would appear the Israelis still prize the capabilities of the F-15 even though they have also have access to the vaunted F-35.

In June 1984 Saudi F-15s clashed with Iranian F-4s over the Persian Gulf resulting in at least one, possibly two of the Iranian aircraft being shot down.

The USAF would have to wait until 1991 to blood their Eagles. Following the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990 Operation Desert Shield saw the USAF deploy three F-15C squadrons to Saudi Arabia totalling 72 aircraft. Once Operation Desert Storm began the USAF F-15C were very quickly in the thick of things and played a crucial role in the Coalition gaining air superiority after only three days.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
USAF F-15C dominated the skies over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm

During Desert Storm the USAF shot down 39 Iraqi aircraft in air to air combat, of which 36 were shot down by the F-15C. The USAF F-15C tally for Desert Storm was as follows:

  • 5 MiG-29 Fulcrum
  • 2 MiG-25 Foxbat
  • 8 MiG-23 Flogger
  • 2 MiG-21 Fishbed
  • 2 Su-25 Frogfoot
  • 4 Su-22 Fitter
  • 1 Su-7 Fitter
  • 6 Mirage F1
  • 1 Il-76 Candid
  • 1 PC-9
  • 2 Mi-8 Hip
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“Gulf Spirit” (85-0102) was one of the more distinguished Eagles of the campaign. It was responsible for three victories against Iraqi aircraft. The first of these was recorded on 29th January 1991, when Captain David Rose destroyed a MiG-23 with an AIM-7 missile. On 7th February, Captain Anthony Murphy recorded victories against two Sukhoi Su-22 aircraft
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Note that although this F-15C was assigned to Colonel Rick Parsons, it was Rose and Murphy that recorded the victories, which are represented by three Iraqi flags on the port side. The single green star, next to Colonel Parson’s name represents his victory over a Su-22 which was recorded while flying a different F-15C

Of note were the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing who deployed from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to King Faisal Airbase in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. The “Gorillas” flew more F-15C sorties and racked up more flying hours than the other F-15C units and in doing so shot down 16 Iraqi aircraft leaving them the highest scoring Coalition fighter unit of the war. They shot down 5 MiG-29 Fulcrum which at the time were the most advanced MiGs available, and the Gorillas were the only unit to have a Wing Commander who scored an air to air kill during the war.

Æthelberht, Going Postal
58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing – “The Gorillas”

For comparison, in 1972 the 58th deployed to Thailand for a six month tour over Vietnam where they only managed to shoot down a single MiG-19 and a MiG-21. This really underscores the success of the reforms and improvements made to USAF tactical aviation following the Vietnam War and the introduction of the F-15.

During Desert Storm a pair of Saudi F-15C shot down 2 Iraqi Mirage F1. One Saudi F-15C crashed but the Iraqis claim it was shot down by an R-40 (AA-6 Acrid) missile fired by a MiG-25PD. It’s also worth mentioning during Desert Shield a Saudi pilot defected with his F-15C to Sudan. The Saudis, no doubt under pressure from the Americans, were forced to hand over a very large sum of money to secure the return of the aircraft.

Following Desert Storm and the establishment of the no-fly zones over Iraq the F-15C was once again in the headlines when a pair of USAF F-15C shot down a pair of US Army UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters in a fratricide incident. All 26 crew and passengers on the Blackhawks were killed.

The USAF F-15C next saw combat over Kosovo in 1999 where they shot down 4 Serbian MiG-29 Fulcrum.

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Oregon Air National Guard Colonel Jeff Hwang pictured in the cockpit of an F-15C prior to his retirement “fini flight” in 2014. On 26th March 1999 whilst flying F-15C 86-0156 the then Captain Hwang of the USAF’s 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath was involved in an action which resulted in the downing of two Serbian MiG-29 fighters. Hwang was credited with one of the kills, his wingman was credited with the other. Some years subsequent after further investigation it was determined missiles fired by Hwang actually downed both of the enemy fighters and Hwang was credited with both kills

Finally, the most unusual “kill” scored by the F-15 was on 13th September 1985 when an F-15A dubbed the “Celestial Eagle” launched an ASM-135 ASAT missile as part of a test. The missile hit the defunct Solwind P78-1 satellite and destroyed it.

The ASAT required the F-15 to launch the missile at an altitude of 38,000ft whilst performing a pull-up zoom climb at Mach 1.22, 3.8G and a pitch angle of 65 degrees. The missile would carry the Miniature Homing Vehicle into orbit where it would intercept the target satellite at a speed of 15,000mph and destroy it via kinetic energy. The USAF believed this method of destroying a satellite was undetectable versus launching a larger missile from the ground which would produce a large heat bloom and be detected by Soviet satellites.

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The “Celestial Eagle” firing an ASAT missile during testing in 1985

When they found out about it Congress were not impressed with the USAF destroying satellites in orbit and placed a ban on further tests in December 1985. ASAT continued without any further live tests until 1988 when the Reagan administration terminated the programme.

NASA however, did learn a lot about orbital debris from ASAT.

It should be noted that Japan also operates the F-15 in the air superiority role but the Japanese aircraft have never seen combat.

If one were being uncharitable one could say the F-15 has never really come up against serious opposition and its kills have almost all been against much older and less capable Soviet export fighters flown by Arab air forces. In the case of the Serbian MiGs these were aircraft which had been subject to years of sanctions and were thrown into combat with many mission critical systems unserviceable. However, I think it’s very hard to argue against the fact the F-15 has been the most effective air superiority platform of the last 40 years. There has been a relative dearth of aerial combat since the Vietnam War but from what combat there has been, the F-15 has certainly distinguished itself above and beyond any other fighter in service. As such I think it’s quite fair to consider the F-15 a great success. Yes there are multiple other types in service now which are regarded as being more capable than the F-15, but none of them have seen real aerial combat (yet).

Now’s a good time to talk about missiles again. You’ll remember how earlier in these articles we talked about how poor missile performance was in Vietnam. How have the missiles improved since?

The Israelis flying over Bekaa Valley in 1982 made 8 kills with guns, 54 with IR missiles and 12 with radar-guided missiles. Worth noting is more than half of kills were made by the “multirole” F-16 despite it being primarily tasked with bombing missions. All radar-guided missile kills except one were from within visual range. A total of 5 BVR shots were made, making the data set very small indeed.

Over the Falklands in 1982 British Harriers fired 26 AIM-9L Sidewinders and scored 19 kills, giving a Pk of 73%. None of the missiles fired by Argentine aircraft hit their targets. Argentine Mirages flew with the Matra R.530 radar guided missile and there are a couple of accounts of these being fired at Harriers and missing.

The 1991 Gulf War revealed some interesting statistics. 88 AIM-7 shots resulted in 24 kills which gives a Pk of 27%. It should be noted only 16 of those AIM-7 kills were Beyond Visual Range (BVR). For the AIM-9 Sidewinder it becomes a little more complicated. During Desert Storm USAF F-16s fired 36 Sidewinders, of which 20 were fired accidentally. Apparently this was due to the poor ergonomics of the F-16’s stick which resulted in USAF pilots inadvertently launching an $84,000 firework. Stop sniggering at the back! So let’s just look at the F-15’s Sidewinder launches instead. F-15s fired 12 Sidewinders for 8 kills (Pk 67%). For the sake of completeness, the F-15 fired 67 of the earlier mentioned 88 Sparrows for 23 kills (Pk 34%). The US Navy didn’t fare so well. They fired 21 Sparrows for 1 kill (Pk 4%) and 38 Sidewinders for 2 kills (Pk 5%)

One interesting thing to note is Desert Storm appeared to show that infra-red guided missiles had approximately twice the Pk of a radar guided missile… which was also the case over Vietnam.

Things don’t get much better for the current AIM-120 AMRAAM. The data set is very small, but 13 launches have yielded 6 kills (Pk 46%), now there is some contention that one of those kills involving a Serbian MiG-29 wasn’t actually shot down by the AIM-120 but was in fact fratricide and was shot down by a Serbian surface to air missile. In which case we get 5 kills for 13 launches (Pk 38%).

Yes I’m aware these Pk numbers don’t take into account multiple missiles being fired and hitting the same target – this is a particular argument made my proponents of the AIM-120. They argue if we take this into account the AIM-120’s Pk rises to 80-90% but if anything this should underscore what a small data set we have for the AIM-120. Suffice to say not one of these AIM-120 shots has been made against a target sporting a modern defensive suite. As such I remain quite sceptical about the efficacy of BVR weapons in the current era. However, this is probably a discussion for another time and place!

Finally, it’s time to mention perhaps one of the most famous and remarkable tales of the F-15. In 1983 whilst on a training flight flying a twin seat F-15D against A-4 Skyhawks, Israeli pilot Zivi Nedivi collided with one of the Skyhawks. The Skyhawk pilot ejected and Nedivi found himself in a spin. He recovered control of his aircraft and was initially instructed to eject but he felt confident he could make an emergency landing at the nearest runway. It was only after he had landed that Nedivi realised the collision with the A-4 had resulted in the loss of the entire starboard wing of his aircraft.

Æthelberht, Going Postal

Æthelberht, Going Postal

Æthelberht, Going Postal

In the next (and final) part of this series we’ll have a look at the multi-role Strike Eagle and the various advanced derivatives it has spawned.
 

© Æthelberht 2018
 

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