The F-15SA is the most advanced production F-15 Eagle ever built. Saudi Arabia ordered 84 new build F-15SAs and close to 70 kits to upgrade their existing F-15S fleet to the SA configuration. Just one part of this upgrade is the activation of Eagle’s outboard wing stores stations, which will expand the jet’s already heavy combat punch.
The image above shows the F-15SA once again, albeit this time it is in an air-to-air configuration, including no less than eight AIM-120 AMRAAMs and eight AIM-9X Sidewinders. This amounts to double the missile carrying capability of the F-15C or F-15E. Also note the Infrared Search and Track system mounted above the jet’s radome. This, combined with its state of the art radar’s low probability of intercept modes, advanced radar warning receiver and Link 16 data-link, allows the F-15SA to hunt for enemy aircraft in electromagnetic silence while still maintain high-situational awareness.
The F-15S entered combat over Yemen on November 4, 2009, primarily flying cross-border strikes against insurgents on a daily basis into 2010. It was a difficult conflict for the Saudis and while the RSAF had problems adapting to counter-insurgency – as have many air arms – it did not suffer the setbacks of the Saudi ground forces. In 2010-15, RSAF aircraft carried out occasional cross-border strikes into Yemen.
The RSAF encountered shortages of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and there were unconfirmed reports of its attacks inflicting collateral damage. The F-15S units emerged as the RSAF’s close air support specialists, however, the Saudis considering the F-15S superior to the Panavia Tornado IDS (Interdictor Strike) for medium-altitude PGM-delivery sorties. These had become the RSAF’s primary offensive mission profile, as reflected by its investment in large PGM stockpiles in 2011 and 2013.
Following intervention in Yemen to prevent the government falling to the Ansar Allah insurgent group (known as the Houthis), Saudi F-15 operations over Yemen resumed on March 26, 2015 with the launching of Operation Decisive Storm, which ran until 21 April. More than 100 Saudi aircraft were reinforced from Bahrain (15 F-16s), Egypt (F-16s), Jordan (six F-16s), Kuwait (15 F/A-18s), Morocco (F-16s), Qatar (six F-16s), Sudan (three Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bombers and an Antonov An-26 Curl twin-turboprop transport) and the UAE (30 combat aircraft) participated in this opening stage of what has become a prolonged conflict. According to press reports, Saudi F-15S bomb loads included WCMDs containing SFW sub-munitions.
The air campaign was planned at a joint fusion centre near Riyadh, which included six to ten US liaison personnel, with a further 50-60 providing coordination and support. The Saudis appear to have relied on preplanning and a centrally approved air tasking order (ATO), similar to those used during the 1991 Gulf War, rather than the type of near-real-time and in-flight tasking/retasking that has become more commonplace since 2002 among the US and its coalition partners. Theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs), including the SS-1 Scud and SS-21 Scarab, were fired at Saudi bases during the air offensive, leading to further coalition attacks.
The US provided support, including tanker sorties. The first coalition aircraft refuelled by a US Boeing KC-135 tanker during the operation were an RSAF F-15 and an Egyptian Air Force F-16. Losses included a Moroccan F-16 and, on March 26, an RSAF F-15S that suffered engine failure over the Gulf of Aden. US forces based in Djibouti, including an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter, rescued its crew and brought them aboard a US Navy destroyer, before returning them home.
Operation Restore Hope followed the initial operation and on July 14, 2015, the Saudi-led Operation Golden Arrow saw coalition air forces supporting ground forces in Yemen. Coalition aircraft flew from Aden International Airport and included Boeing AH-64D Apache helicopters, presumably from the UAE. In Washington on October 9, Prince Sultan bin Khaled al Faisal said Saudi special forces on the ground were performing “precision lasing for our air assets.” “You cannot say there has been no progress”, he said. The coalition’s operational tempo has slowed, reflecting the Saudis hosting ongoing peace negotiations in 2016. But the Saudi request to the US for 13,000 precision guided munitions, made in late 2015, shows the scope of the operations and their impact on existing weapons stockpiles.
Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA programme
Despite continued delays to the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA programme, both the RSAF and Boeing are confident the issues will soon be resolved. So far 40 of the jets have been produced, but none have been delivered. Saudi sources close to the programme are citing software issues with the flight control system, as well as the integration of so many weapons as the main reasons.
The RSAF is procuring new production Boeing F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) Eagles, while upgrading its current F-15S aircraft to F-15SA standard. The move is part of a force modernisation programme begun in 2011, a manifestation of Saudi determination to possess and use effective airpower.
The F-15SA is an improved F-15S two-seat air-to-ground fighter incorporating elements of Singapore’s F-15SG and the F-15SK Silent Eagle – intended for the Republic of Korea, but never built. Its new systems include some more advanced than those fitted to United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagles, including fly-by-wire (FBW) controls.
Under the original plan, after an initial training period, the first F-15SAs were to have be delivered to KKAB, their Saudi main operating base, (where US$166 million in construction contracts to accommodate the F-15SA were awarded in February 2015).
A Lockheed Martin-integrated F-15SA ground training system is being installed at KKAB and is due for completion by 2020. By early 2017, Number 55 Squadron (Fighter Training Unit) at KKAB and 29 Squadron at KFAB were to have each had 24 F-15SAs, plus four at KAAB with 92 Squadron and the Fighter Weapons School.
Number 93 Squadron, at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), as to receive its first F-15SAs in mid-2017 be at its full 24-aircraft strength in a year. Deliveries of F-15SAs will continue until 2019. But the delays to the flight test programme will likely postpone these target dates.
The first F-15S to F-15SA upgrade was to be delivered to KAAB in mid-2017, but that also is likely to be delayed by six months or more. The upgrade line will start delivering F-15SAs to KAAB soon after, at a rate of one to two per month.
In early 2015, the flight-test programme was accelerated. Today, 40 production F-15SAs have been built and stored at St Louis, awaiting the completion of the four- aircraft test flying programme, while the training pipelines were already open.
Training, initially for instructors, was provided in the US by ex-US military personnel working for Mohawarean Aviation Services Co, a Saudi corporation. Five adjustments to the F-15SA programme were funded and implemented by the end of 2015.
The schedule for F-15SA delivery to the RSAF was the subject of a high-level review. Maj General Mohammed bin Saleh Al Qtaibi, the Saudi air chief and Heidi Grant, the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, met in Washington on January 11-13, 2016.
A US Air Force spokesman reported, “the program was on track.” This meeting was intended to help set the stage for president Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April.
The delays have all come from the US side of the programme, rather than the Saudis’ economic problems (development funding was largely front-end loaded) or their ability to integrate the aircraft into their force structure, with the simultaneous need to focus on combat operations.
Prince Sultan bin Khaled al Faisal, a US-trained Saudi officer now at a Riyadh think tank, said in Washington on October 9, 2015: “I do not see a problem with any weapon system we decide to buy. We are able to train through every operational cycle and our groundcrews are some of the best in the world.”