Israel Kicks Off Program to Improve Its F-16s and F-15s
F-15s and F-16s make up the backbone of Israel’s potent fighter force. The IDF’s main fighter is the F-16 Fighting Falcon, including aging F-16 A/B Netz (“Falcon”), plus F-16C Barak (“Lightning”) and 2-seat F-16D Brakeets (“Thunderbolt”), and now the heavily customized two-seat F-16I Block 52+ Soufa (“Storm”). The Israelis fly the largest contingent of F-16s outside the United States, alongside longer range, higher performance F-15s. F-15A-D Baz (“Eagle”) models have greatly distinguished themselves in IDF service, and the customized two-seat F-15I Ra’ahm (“Thunder”) Strike Eagle is optimized for advanced ground attack and long range interception. All of these aircraft are heavily modified from the US versions, with Israeli avionics, self-protection systems, weapons, and sometimes radars as well.
While Israel’s F-16A/B Netz inventory may well be sold on the international market, their F-16 C/D and F-15 A-D planes were expected to serve the Air Force Corps until at least 2020. Unfortunately, Israel’s new F-35As won’t even start arriving until 2016 or 2017. To keep their edge, Israel began spending money in 2006 to improve and upgrade its legacy fighter fleet:
Cheyl Ha’Avir: Upgrading the Fleet
Announced improvement for the “Barak 2020″ F-16 C/Ds will include an command and control upgrades to match the systems in the newer F-16I Soufas, replacement of the screens in the cockpit with more advanced color displays and head up displays, and other undisclosed upgrades. A follow-on program is expected to add improved flight control systems, high resolution displays, and Elbit’s DASH helmet-mounted display.
Announced improvement of the F-15 A-D Eagles will include a “replacement of electronic war systems” and an “improvement in the ability to carry advanced bombs” via integration of new weapons. Presumably, Python 5 and Derby 4 air-air missile integration will be part of the process, if that isn’t already present from past modernizations. While the release wasn’t specific, JDAM compatibility is likely to be a priority and Lockheed’s JASSM/JSOW are also proving popular these days. Tamir Eshel of Defense Update writes us to add that integration of RAFAEL’s “Spice”, a kit similar to JDAM but improved via a combination of electro-optical and GPS guidance, will also be included.
This is actually the second modernization wave for the F-15 A-Ds, following close on the heels of the 1995-2001 Baz Meshopar (“Improved Eagle”) program. Israeli-Weapons.com notes that the Baz Meshopar package resembles the US Air Force (USAF) F-15 Multi-Stage Improvement Program, although it was implemented with a significant element of Israeli-built electronics and avionics integrated around the MIL-STD 1553 and MIL-STD 1760 data buses. The latter are required in order to add compatibility with GPS-guided weapons, and key elements of the F-15I Ra’am Strike Eagle variant include a modernized cockpit with Elbit multifunction displays, Elbit’s DASH (Display And Sight Helmet), a GPS-INS navigation system, AIM-120 AMRAAM and Python 4 missile capability, plus software upgrades delivered via the USAF’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Center avionics management directorate software division. The upgraded aircraft are known as Baz Meshopar (Improved Eagle) but are also referred to as the F-15 AUP (Avionics Upgrade Program).
Meanwhile, back in North America, US budget crunches and procurement cutbacks around the F-22 and F-35 JSF programs will intensify the need to keep its TacAir fleet up to acceptable strength via supplemental measures. As such, Israel’s upgrades could hold future interest as a template for upgrades that would turn the USA’s F-15C dedicated air superiority fighters into modernized multi-role aircraft at a reasonable cost.
Contracts & Key Events
March 6/13: Israel Defense:
“In several months, the project for upgrading all Israeli F-15I “Ra’am”, considered to be the IAF’s strategic fighter aircraft, is meant to come to a conclusion. Lt. Col. Tzahi Alia, head of the systems and armaments field in the maintenance squadron at the Israeli Hatzerim airbase….”
Dec 26/11: The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is looking for ways to bolster its fleet before the the F-35s arrive. Phased elections in Egypt, which are beginning to hand significant power to Taliban-style Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, are creating a new strategic situation. Meanwhile, the possibility of slowdowns to the F-35 program or further cost increases leaves their affordability and timeliness in question.
Beyond upgrades to existing platforms, the Israelis are reportedly considering scenarios in which American budget cuts lead to retirement of serving F-15s and F-16s, and used planes might be available for a bargain price. The question after that would be whether to operate them as-is, or upgrade them to a common Israeli configuration.
Dec 12/11: Delays to the F-35 program appear to be pushing Israel toward further F-16C/D upgrades, and may even trigger new aircraft buys if the multi-national program’s delivery dates slip beyond 2017.
The Jerusalem Post reports that the IAF has now decided to extend their F-16C/D “Barak” (Lightning; oddly, also the American name for the F-35) to add flight-control system upgrades, high-resolution displays, and Elbit’s DASH helmet-mounted displays. Of the 3 upgrades mentioned, the DASH will make the biggest difference to the fighters’ long-term effectiveness. Helmet-mounted displays are quickly becoming standard equipment in modern fighters, because they allow the pilot to take full advantage of new datalinked, wide-angle seeker aerial and ground weapons.
Feb 19/11: Flight International reports that Israel’s F-15 Eagle upgrades are expanding to add its oldest F-15 A/B aircraft. Reports vary, with estimated totals of in-service F-15 A/Bs ranging between 26-45. One prototype has already been completed.
The upgrade will give all of Israel’s F-15s some level of long-range strike capability, and reportedly includes fuselage strengthening (which may be informed by the USAF’s recent fleet grounding), MIL-STD-1760, and unelaborated “improvements to the aircraft’s radar,” among others.
Israel’s F-15A/Bs carry the APG-63 mechanically scanned radar, which was introduced in the 1970s. Its first set of 25 F-15A/Bs were reportedly early production USAF airframes, and would definitely have been delivered without the APG-63′s key 1979 upgrade: a software programmable signal processor. Note that the AN/APG-63v1 is actually a major redesign introduced in the early 1990s, which currently serves on a number of USAF aircraft, and on South Korea’s F-15K Slam Eagles. The v1 does not have an AESA front end like its v2 and v3 counterparts, but is compatible with adding one later. Switching APG-63s for their APG-63v1 counterpart, or for an Israeli radar like the EL-M/2032, would be a big change.
Feb 16/11: Retired IAF Brig-Gen. Assaf Agmon of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, says Israel is likely to re-assess the importance of its air force, in the wake of Egypt’s unrest and uncertainty surrounding the future of their peace treaty with Egypt. He sees the reassessment as broader than just the air force, but that has been Israel’s traditional bulwark against conventional threats. Agmon is suggesting additional buys of F-35A medium stealth fighters, but delivery timing and program issues could also push the IAF to focus on quickly-delivered fleet upgrades instead. Flight International.
Nov 30/10: Flight International reports that the Israeli air force has upgraded its first F-16C/D to the “Barak 2020″ configuration. Modifications are being performed at the squadron level, under the supervision of the air force’s central maintenance depot (technical unit number 22).
April 20/06: David Axe of DefenseTech notes that the USAF is indeed preparing a modernization roadmap for its single-seat F-15C Eagle air superiority fighters, and that conversion to multi-role status is part of that roadmap. Up to 200 F-15Cs may eventually be involved, and a new AN/APG-63v3 AESA radar is the 1st step.
Jan 25/06: The upgrade programs are announced, with few details. The IDF news release did not mention what the further-upgraded F-15s would be called. Perhaps “Baz Meshopar Me’oht” (Very Improved Eagle)? IDF | DefenseTalk copy.