Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Silent Eagle

Boeing recently unveiled its concept for the “Silent Eagle,” the next model in the F-15 family designed to keep the venerable super-fighter in production for a few years more. In the Silent Eagle design, Boeing is hoping to offer foreign air forces an “affordable” degree of stealth. While the specifics are highly classified, the basic concepts behind designing a stealth aircraft aren’t hard to grasp:

--Introduce as few protuberances or angles as possible in the overall layout.

--Utilize radar-absorbing materials in the aircraft’s structure

--Submerge the engines in a way that protects the compressors from exposure to radar

--Reduce the noise and infra-red signatures produced by the engines through cooling, shielding the nozzles, sound dampening, and other methods.

The F-15 is still a world-class fighter aircraft, especially in the hands of a highly-trained pilot. Continuous avionics upgrades could keep it competitive with super-fighters like the F-22. But the F-22’s distinct advantage is that the airframe was designed to be stealthy from the start. While Boeing has done a few things to the F-15 airframe to reduce its radar return (submerged weapons carriage, an exportable radar-absorbent material coating on the airframe, and outward-canted fins,) it’s still a decidedly non-stealthy airplane.

Friendly foreign air forces have to face the question of whether they need stealthy combat aircraft in their arsenals. In scenarios like Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, stealth was not as vital a factor as it was in Operation Desert Storm because of the enemy’s degraded air defenses. Stealth often becomes a hindrance because internal weapons carriage reduces the overall payload the aircraft can carry.

I’m interested to see if anybody is interested in buying the F-15 “Silent Eagle,” especially with the price of the F-35 rising. The F-35 was designed with an “affordable” degree of stealth in mind, but it’s quickly becoming as expensive as the F-22 (an airplane which is faster, stealthier, more maneuverable, and just a better all-around air-to-air fighter aircraft.) "Silent Eagle" is the poor man's F-35, sacrificing the F-35's level of stealthiness for affordability, superior maneuverability, a higher top speed, a dual crew, and twin-engine reliability.

Japan is likely to be the target of Boeing's "Silent Eagle" marketing. The Japanese already fly F-15's but really want the F-22. With the US Congress prohibiting F-22 exports, Japan will likely settle for the F-35 unless Boeing can make a better offer (i.e., one that includes a higher degree of the plane's production in Japan) with the "Silent Eagle."