ST. LOUISBoeing [BA] believes its F-15EX could carry and employ drones from conformal tech bays that would take the place of conformal fuel tanks on the plane.

The aircraft’s open architecture and cabling may facilitate manned-unmanned teaming.

“We created some new space–the new digital design, the nose barrel and the forward fuselage also added some capacity from a physical space perspective,” said Matt “Phat” Giese, Boeing’s chief F-15EX test pilot. “With this new EX open architecture/open mission system design, that allows a lot more ‘plug and play’ for the Air Force, and they can do that, not just with Boeing supplied software, but we’re supplier agnostic. They can use any supplier, any third-party vendor with this open mission system to quickly ‘plug and play’ new items on the aircraft.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that the service is focusing on system quality and resilience more than system numbers and lethality, as the service requests a record $49.2 billion in research and development in fiscal 2023 and tries to narrow its R&D to initiatives that show near-term fielding promise, such as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) autonomous drones to enhance the features of manned planes, like the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A, the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber, and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2023 R&D request is $9.1 billion more than the service asked for last year, and almost $20 billion more than the service requests for procurement in fiscal 2023.

The service said that it is embarking upon a classified effort to field combat drones by 2030.

Kendall has said that the Air Force is principally looking at NGAD as the fighter quarterback, but he said that the F-35 or the Lockheed Martin F-22 could also serve as play callers (Defense Daily, Dec. 9, 2021).

Department of the Air Force officials have yet to establish unmanned/manned requirements percentages for the Air Force’s future fleet, but the service is likely to undertake such a study.

Given the expense of manned aircraft programs, including NGAD, the B-21, the F-35, and the F-15EX, Kendall has said that drones will be a much larger part of the service’s force mix (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

Drone employment would mark a new chapter for the F-15, which had its first flight on July 27, 1972.

“Because the new, advanced F-15 has that digital ‘fly-by-wire’ design, it took about a six and a half to seven-year flight test program [in Palmdale, Calif.] where we went back and touched all the corners of the F-15 envelope,” Giese said. “We went and touched things that we haven’t done in the F-15 in decades. So, we had to go back out to Mach 2.5. That’s a unique capability of this platform based on the variable inlets. We had to get ‘low and slow.’ So, we had to go all the fast, high end points and the ‘low and slow’ end points. We basically re-vetted the entire envelope of the F-15 in multiple configurations, both with conformal fuel tanks and without.”

“We had to do some of those test points that we hadn’t done since the 1980s when the C model and the E model, back in the late 80s, did some of those test points,” he said. “That was a big effort. All of our customers now that want that digital design will benefit from that test program.”

To accelerate the replacement of F-15C/Ds nearing the end of their service lives, the U.S. Air Force fiscal 2023 budget requests nearly $2.7 billion for 24 F-15EXs–double the number sought last year, while the service curtails its planned buy of F-35As from more than $5 billion sought for 48 planes in fiscal 2022 to about $4.5 billion for 33 F-35As in fiscal 2023, as the service tries to iron out problems with the aircraft’s Block 4, which is to have 88 unique features and to integrate 16 new weapons on the F-35 (Defense Daily, March 28).