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US Air Force loads up F-15E fighter jet with a lot of cruise missiles to see if it could be used like a bomber

  • The Air Force loaded an F-15E fighter jet with twice as many cruise missiles as it normally carries.
  • The load test was part of a proof-of-concept known as Project Strike Rodeo.
  • The idea is that fighters able to self-escort could be used to conduct bomber missions.
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The US Air Force is looking at the possibility of using fighter jets armed with both air-to-air missiles and a heavy loadout of stand-off cruise missiles as bomber aircraft able to self-escort in contested airspace and conduct devastating missile strikes.

This week, the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base armed an F-15E Strike Eagle with five AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), more than twice what the plane would normally carry.

The unusually heavy loadout was part of a munitions proof-of-concept known as Project Strike Rodeo, the 53rd Wing explained in a statement.

F-15E Strike Eagle in the Project Strike Rodeo loadout

An F-15E as part of Project Strike Rodeo.

USAF


Project Strike Rodeo began as an idea raised during a Weapons and Tactics Conference in January, when tacticians were looking at options for a scenario in which fighters had to escort a bomber carrying stand-off munitions to a release point in highly contested airspace.

The 53rd Wing said some participants suggested that instead of having a group of fighters escort a single bomber, the fighters could be armed with a heavy loadout of JASSMs and used to conduct bomber missions.

Doing so would theoretically “reduce the size and complexity of the strike package” and “distribute mission risk across the force,” the wing explained.

The idea here is essentially that the fighters could self-escort as part of a smaller aircraft formation, and the mission could continue if an aircraft was lost in battle.

F-15E Strike Eagle in the Project Strike Rodeo loadout

An F-15E equipped with the Project Strike Rodeo loadout.

USAF


The most JASSMs any US Air Force fighter can currently carry is two, so after determining that the F-15E Strike Eagle would be used as a test platform for Project Strike Rodeo, a team at Eglin began looking into how to put more JASSMs on the aircraft to make this idea possible.

The Eglin-based team, which included Air Force personnel from the 53rd Wing, 96th Test Wing, and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, came up with a special loading tool and a new loading procedure to make it work, and then the F-15 System Program Office provided funding for a load test.

F-15E Strike Eagle in the Project Strike Rodeo loadout

An F-15E during Project Strike Rodeo.

USAF


“No one told us to do this,” Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, the director of staff for the 53rd Wing, said. “We saw the need and the opportunity, so we executed.”

“This is a squadron innovation effort with operational and strategic implications,” he continued. “Project Strike Rodeo is all about creating options for combatant commanders, which ultimately can be used to create multiple dilemmas for the adversary.”

F-15E Strike Eagle in the Project Strike Rodeo loadout

An F-15E in the Project Strike Rodeo loadout.

USAF


The 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron participated in another proof-of-concept test in late February that involved loading F-15E Strike Eagles with 15 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), six more than its current maximum load.

The concept, known as Agile Combat Employment, looks at using the fighter as a “bomb truck” to deliver munitions to a combat zone to reload itself or arm other aircraft.

F-15E Strike Eagle in the Agile Combat Employment configuration

An F-15E in the Agile Combat Employment configuration.

USAF


Just two months after the load test at Eglin Air Force Base, the Air Force flew six F-15E Strike Eagles in the “bomb truck” configuration in an operational setting, with each carrying 12 JDAMs and four small diameter bombs.

An F-15E has not yet been flown with the Project Strike Rodeo loadout, but there are apparently plans for follow-on flight testing.

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