Air Force F-16A Fighting Falcon, F-15C Eagle, and F-15E Strike Eagle fighter aircraft fly over burning oil field sites in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm (U.S. Air Force)
Staff Sgt. Tamara Rhone, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, waits for Maj. Christine Mau, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing executive officer and an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, and Capt. Jennifer Morton, 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron weapons system officer, dons their helmet before take-off at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, March 29, 2011. Members from the 389th EFS helped make the first combat mission to be flown, planned, and maintained entirely by females.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm
The F-15E saw action in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 for Operation Desert Shield. The 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron flew to Seeb Air Base in Oman to begin training exercises in anticipation of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia; in December, the 335th and 336th squadrons relocated to Al Kharj Air Base in Saudi Arabia, closer to Iraq’s border. Operation Desert Storm began on 17 January 1991; 24 F-15Es launched an attack upon five fixed Scud installations in western Iraq; missions against Scud sites continued through that night with a second strike consist of 21 F-15Es. At night-time, F-15Es flew hunter missions over western Iraq, searching for mobile SCUD launchers. By conducting random bombings in suspected areas, it was hoped to deter the Iraqis from setting up for a Scud launch.
On the opening night of the war, an F-15E fired a AIM-9 Sidewinder at a MiG-29, which failed to hit its target. Other F-15Es simultaneously and unsuccessfully engaged the lone MiG-29, it was eventually brought down by a missile of unknown source. The same night another flight was attacked by a MiG-29. A low altitude engagement ensued and the MiG-29 hit the ground. On 18 January, during a strike against a petrol oil and lubricant plant near Basrah, an F-15E was lost to enemy fire, the pilot and WSO were killed. F-15E crews described this mission as the most difficult and dangerous of the war as it was heavily defended by SA-3s, SA-6s, SA-8s and Rolands as well as by anti-aircraft artillery. Two nights later, a second and final F-15E was downed by an Iraqi SA-2; the crew survived and managed to evade capture for several days and even made in contact with coalition aircraft, but rescue was unable to be launched due to security issues, one airman failed to identify himself with proper codes. The two airmen were later captured by the Iraqis.
Strike Eagles were able to destroy 18 Iraqi jets on the ground at Tallil air base using GBU-12s and CBU-87s. On 14 February, an F-15E scored its only air-to-air kill: a Mil Mi-24 helicopter. While responding to a request for help by US Special Forces, five Iraqi helicopters were spotted. The lead F-15E of two acquired a helicopter via its FLIR in the process of unloading Iraqi soldiers, and released a GBU-10 bomb. The F-15E crew thought the bomb had missed its target and were preparing to use a Sidewinder when the helicopter was destroyed. The Special Forces team estimated that the Hind was roughly 800 feet (240 m) over the ground when the 2,000 lb (910 kg) bomb hit its target. As Coalition bombing operation had commenced, the F-15Es disengaged from combat with the remaining helicopters.
F-15Es attacked various heavily defended targets throughout Iraq, prioritizing SCUD missile sites. Missions with the objective of killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were undertaken, several suspected locations were bombed by F-15Es. Prior to the operation’s ground war phase, F-15Es conducted tank plinking missions against Iraqi vehicles in Kuwait. Following 42 days of heavy combat, a cease fire came into effect on 1 March 1991, leading to the establishment of Northern and Southern no-fly zones over Iraq.
Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch
Following Desert Storm, two no-fly zones over Iraq were set up, and enforced typically by US and UK aircraft. In one incident, an attack on up to 600 Kurdish refugees by Iraqi helicopters at Chamchamal, northern Iraq, was observed by a flight of F-15Es. As they were not allowed to open fire, the F-15Es instead conducted several high speed passes as close as possible to the Iraqi helicopters to create severe wake-turbulence, while aiming lasers at the helicopter’s cockpits to attempt to blind their crews; this caused the crash of one Hind. Afterwards, USAF leadership ordered F-15Es not to fly below 10,000 feet (3,000 m) to deter a repetition.
F-15Es of the 391st Fighter Squadron, 492d Fighter Squadron, and 494th Fighter Squadron regularly deployed to Turkey throughout the 1990s. In January 1993, Iraqi targets in breach of the ceasefire agreement below the 32nd parallel north were attacked; 10 F-15Es conducted a punitive strike days later. Most missions were of a defensive nature, the Strike Eagles carried a flexible range of weapons on a typical mission. AWACS aircraft were in close contact with F-15E crews, who would receive new taskings while airborne and thus could fly unplanned attacks on Iraqi targets. After 1993, violations of the no-fly zones were minimal as Iraq staged a minor withdrawal; in 1997 Turkey approved the creation of Operation Northern Watch (ONW) and permitted US forces to use the Incirlik air base.
In December 1998, Operation Desert Fox was conducted when Iraq refused UNSCOM inspections. On 28 December 1998, three F-15Es each dropped two GBU-12 500-pound precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to successfully strike an SA-3 tracking radar and optical guidance unit. After Desert Fox, Iraq stepped up its violations of the no-fly zones, thus a number of retaliatory and pre-planned strikes were conducted by F-15Es; in ONW alone, weapons were expended on at least 105 days. Between 24 and 26 January 1999, F-15Es expended several AGM-130s and GBU-12s against SAM sites in northern Iraq near Mosul. Several F-15Es also flew in support of Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Provide Comfort II.
Operations in the Balkans
Operation Deny Flight was a United Nations-enforced no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the deteriorating situation in the Balkans. In August 1993, F-15Es from 492d and 494th FS deployed to Aviano, Italy. In late 1993, NATO ordered a limited F-15E strike at Udbina airfield, targeting Serbian forces in neighboring Croatia. Eight F-15Es armed with GBU-12s took off to attack an SA-6 anti-aircraft vehicle; the mission was cancelled mid-flight over the application of stringent Rules of Engagement. In December 1993, F-15Es launched to destroy a pair of SA-2 sites which had fired upon two Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS 1s. In August 1995, F-15Es of 90th Fighter Squadron joined the two other squadrons. The 492d and 494th flew over 2,500 sorties since Deny Flight had begun, 2,000 of these were by 492d. In August 1995, in support of NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force, F-15Es flew strike missions against Serbian armor and logistics around the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. On 9 September, an F-15E deployed the first GBU-15 bomb for the type; a total of nine were dropped against Bosnian-Serb ground forces and air defense targets around Banja Luka.
In response to the displacement of Kosovars and the Serbian government’s rejection of a NATO ultimatum, Operation Allied Force was launched in March 1999. A total of 26 F-15Es flew the first strikes of Allied Force against Serb surface-to-air-missile sites, anti-aircraft batteries and Early Warning radar stations. Strike Eagles were deployed to Aviano as well as RAF Lakenheath in the UK. In-theater, F-15Es conducted Close Air Support missions, a new idea in the late 1990s which has since become a popular concept within the USAF. Missions typically lasted around 7.5 hours, included two aerial refuelings; F-15Es would carry a mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to perform both Combat Air Patrol duties as well as strike missions in the same mission. Mobile SAM launchers posed a considerable threat to NATO aircraft and had made successful shoot-downs, most notably of a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In order to strike from increased distances, the F-15E was equipped with the AGM-130, which provided a stand-off strike capability.
Operation Enduring Freedom
Weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the 391st Fighter Squadron deployed to Ahmed Al Jaber air base, Kuwait, to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. F-15Es met little resistance during initial missions, in the first night targets ranged from Taliban military structures and supply depots, to al-Qaeda training camps and caves were the main targets. Both the AGM-130 and GBU-15 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs were expended, this was the GBU-15’s first combat usage. GBU-24s and GBU-28s were used against reinforced targets, command and control centers and cave entrances. F-15Es often operated in pairs alongside pairs of F-16Cs. Within weeks of the start of combat operations, there was a lack of targets to strike as nearly all targets had been already destroyed. The Taliban had access to SA-7 and FIM-92 Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles, posing no threat to most aircraft flying above 7,000 feet (2,100 m). Additionally, fixed SAM sites near cities as Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram were struck early on; Afghanistan had rapidly became a low-threat environment for air operations.
Aircraft commonly flew on-call support missions for allied ground forces, F-15Es usually carried MK-82 and GBU-12 bombs in this role, other weapons were sometimes carried, during one mission a GBU-28, two GBU-24s and six GBU-12s were released. Frequent targets during the rest of the war were individual insurgents, light vehicles and supply convoys; cannon fire was often expended as well as bombs from F-15Es. It was during combat over Afghanistan that four 391st crews conducted the longest fighter mission in history; lasting a total of 15.5 hours, nine of those hours spent flying over the target area. Two F-15Es attacked two Taliban command and control facilities, two buildings suspected of being used by Taliban fighters, and a road block; the F-15Es refueled 12 times during the mission.
On 4 March, another incident now known as the Battle of Roberts’ Ridge involved several F-15Es that had embarked on a Close Air Support mission for ground forces. Aircraft destroyed a Taliban observation post and responded to nearby enemy mortar fire upon Navy SEAL forces on a search for an ambushed MH-47E Chinook in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. Several bombs were dropped as the SEAL team still took fire, however one bomb missed due to the wrong coordinates being entered by the aircrew. An MH-47 carrying a rescue team was downed by an RPG while attempting to support the SEALs. Following refueling, the F-15Es dropped a further 11 GBU-12s in coordination with ground forces, and fired their cannons on Taliban forces in close proximity to the survivors of the downed MH-47. A section of F-16s from 18th Fighter Squadron made strafing passes as well until cannon ammunition was depleted, before resorting to further bomb drops. The F-15Es were affected by technical problems involving both radios and weapons that had failed, several GBU-12’s were dropped before returning to Al Jaber in Kuwait.
Years later, several incidents have occurred. On 23 August 2007, a friendly fire incident involved an F-15E mistakenly dropping a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb on British forces; three soldiers were killed. The stated cause was confusion between the air controller and the F-15E crew on the bombing coordinates. On 13 September 2009, an F-15E shot down a non-responsive MQ-9 Reaper drone over Northern Afghanistan to prevent it entering foreign airspace.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
In late 2002, during tension over suspected Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB was ordered to maintain at least one squadron ready to deploy to the Persian Gulf. During January 2003, the 336th was deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, a total of 24 aircraft were deployed to Al Udeid in coordination with planners of the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. In late January, the F-15Es began flying in support of Operation Southern Watch, typically performing surveillance and reconnaissance missions, additional missions included simulated combat against potential Iraqi targets and regional familiarization with local procedures and Rules of Engagements. During OSW, F-15Es attacked a number of targets in southern and western Iraq, including radars, radio communications and relay stations, command and control sites, and air defences. On one night, four F-15Es fired multiple GBU-24s at the Iraqi Republican Guard/Baath Party HQ in Basrah while another flight of four destroyed a nearby Air Defense Sector HQ with six GBU-10s.
Towards the end of February, the 336th received additional aircrews, many of which being drafted from the two non-deployable squadrons at Seymour Johnson (the 333d and 334th Fighter Squadrons) and 391st Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, for a total of four aircrews per F-15E. In early March, the 335th Fighter Squadron’s personnel and aircraft joined the 336th at Al Udeid. One objective was the destruction of Iraq’s air defenses and Early Warning radar network near the border with Jordan, allowing F-16s and Special Forces helicopters to operate from Jordan at the outset of the war. Several radar sites and radio relay stations were hit in western Iraq near the “H3” airfield, during these missions coalition jets met with heavy anti-aircraft fire.
On 19 March, as F-117 Nighthawks dropped bombs over Baghdad, targeting a house where Saddam Hussein was believed to be; F-15Es dropped GBU-28s around the H3 airfield. On 20 March, when the war effectively began, F-15Es fired AGM-130s against key communication, command and control buildings, and other key targets in Baghdad; a few of the weapons missed intended targets, possibly caused by the jamming operations of EA-6B Prowlers in the vicinity.
On 3 April 2003 a F-15E pilot mistook a M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) for an Iraqi surface-to-air missile site and dropped a 500 lb (230 kg) laser-guided bomb, killing three and wounding five others. On 6 April 2003, an F-15E (88–1694), crewed by Captain Eric Das and Major William Watkins performed a critical interdiction mission in support of Special Forces. On the following day, Das and Watkins crashed while bombing targets around Tikrit. The crew were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for their actions.
During the war, F-15Es were credited with destroying 60% of the total force of the Iraqi Medina Republican Guard. They also scored hits on 65 MiGs on the ground, and destroyed key air defense and command buildings in Baghdad. During the war F-15Es worked closely with other jets that were deployed to Al Udeid, including RAAF F/A-18s, USAF F-16s and F-117s, RAF Panavia Tornado fighters and a detachment of US Navy F-14s from VF-154.
Operation Odyssey Dawn
Following the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011, 18 USAF F-15E fighters, and a variety of other NATO and allied aircraft were deployed to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn. On 21 March 2011, an F-15E Strike Eagle, Tail #91–304, from the 492nd FS crashed near Bengazi, Libya. Both crew members parachuted into territory held by resistance elements of the Libyan population and were eventually rescued by US Marines. Equipment problems caused a weight imbalance and contributed to the crash when leaving the target area.
Operation Inherent Resolve
F-15Es are being used by the U.S. in Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. In the early morning on 23 September 2014, Strike Eagles and other American and Gulf Arab aircraft conducted attacks in Syria against ISIS fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks, and armed vehicles. The Pentagon has been releasing videos of targets being hit by ordnance deployed from F-15Es, taken by their own AN/AAQ-33 Sniper targeting pods
The F-15I is operated by the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force No 69 Squadron, which had previously operated the F-4 Phantom II. After the Gulf War in 1991, in which Israeli towns were attacked by SCUD missiles based in Iraq, the Israeli government decided that it needed a long range strike aircraft and issued a Request for Information (RFI). In response, Lockheed Martin offered a version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, while McDonnell Douglas offered both the F/A-18 Hornet and the F-15E. On 27 January 1994, the Israeli government announced that the intention to purchase 21 modified F-15Es, designated F-15I. On 12 May 1994, the US Government authorized the purchase of up to 25 F-15Is by Israel. In November 1995, Israel ordered four extra F-15Is, thus 25 were built from 1996 to 1998.
The first F-15I combat mission was flown in Lebanon on 11 January 1999. The aircraft can carry: the AIM-9L, Rafael Python 4 and the Rafael Python 5 infrared-homing missiles; and the AIM-7 Sparrow and the AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missiles. The Python 4 can be launched at up to 90 degrees off boresight, with the pilot aiming using the helmet-mounted sight. In 1999, Israel announced its intention to procure more fighter aircraft, and the F-15I was a possible contender. However, it was announced that the contract would go to the F-16I.
In November 2009, Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s, along with Saudi Tornados, performed air raids during the Shia insurgency in north Yemen. This was the Saudi Air Force’s first military action over hostile territory since Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Saudi Arabia requested 84 F-15SA aircraft, upgrade of its F-15S fleet to F-15SA standard, and related equipment and weapons through a Foreign Military Sale in October 2010. The F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) variant includes the APG-63(v)3 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, digital electronic warfare systems (DEWS), infrared search and track (IRST) systems, and other advanced systems.