The Amazing Saga Of How Israel Turned Its F-15s Into Multi-Role Bombers (*or, wingwashing israeli crimes: a technical riff) – Tyler Rogoway/FoxtrotAlpha
When the F-15 was created, it was created to be a pure air-to-air fighter, with the philosophy of “not a pound for air-to-ground” guiding designers. So how did Israel end up turning their F-15s into deadly long-range multi-role strike aircraft well before the F-15E Strike Eagle became a reality? Here’s how.
In Need Of A Game Changing Fighter
Israel’s love affair with the F-15 began out of the need to procure a fighter that could trump the increasingly complex fighters that surrounding Arab states were amassing from Russian and French sources. Both the F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle were tested by Israel Air Force pilots in the US during the mid 1970s, with the Eagle being chosen hands down over the Tomcat. In Hebrew, they call it the “Baz.”
Israel received the first of its initial order of two single seat F-15As and two, two seat F-15Bs in 1976 under the Peace Fox foreign military sales program. These aircraft were largely used as test, training and evaluation planes so that the Israeli Air Force could prepare for its full order to arrive. Another 19 F-15As and two F-15Bs were delivered by 1978, entering active service with 133 Squadron at Tel Nof airbase.
The Baz represented a quantum leap in capability for the IAF, with the service having flown the F-4, A-4 and Mirage series prior to it, and was far and away the most capable fighter aircraft in the region during the 1970s. Well, at least aside from Iran’s then growing F-14A fleet.
The Baz was truly a national source of pride in Israel at the time of its arrival and remains so to this day, with only the IAF’s very best pilots selected to fly it. Obviously the aircraft’s strict air-to-air focus helped with this image as the jet was viewed as a guardian of Israel, a weapon that would ensure the country’s ability to exist through overwhelming air superiority capability.
Israeli F-15A and Bs were quick to live up to their hype, shooting down five Syrian MiG-21s over Lebanese skies on June 27th, 1979. More Syrian kills followed that September. Then, on February 13th, 1981, the Baz shot down the very aircraft that spurred the F-15’s original development in the late 1960s, a high and fast flying MiG-25 Foxbot, also of Syrian origin.
Israeli F-15s went on to support Operation Opera, the IAF’s daring raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Six F-15s would provide counter-air escort the eight newly received F-16s that would do the bombing. The high-risk mission was a massive success.
The Baz fleet would then go on to score dozens of kills against Syrian MiGs during the Lebanon War of 1982. IAF Brig. Gen. Moshe Marom-Melnik explained just how powerful the Baz was even against waves of Syrian MiGs:
“We kept the Syrians from flying in Lebanon, and did it in the best possible fashion. Every flight of Syrian planes that tried to cross the lines and attack our forces in Lebanon was shot down. Sometimes a single plane out of the flight escaped and told the others the story of what had happened. We had a field day, basically, shooting down practically everything that flew. The MiG-21 and MiG-23, which formed the backbone of the Syrian air force, were crushed. As far as our squadron was concerned, the war was more like a shooting range.”
During the early 1980s, the IAF received the improved F-15C/D Baz. 18 F-15Cs and 8 F-15Ds were delivered during the 1982-1983 timeframe. These new jets were more capable than their predecessors in almost every respect, although their airframe remained visually nearly identical to the older A/B models. These F-15C/Ds were in no way replacements for the IAF’s older A/B models, instead they were meant to augment and grow Israel’s cherished and battle proven Baz force and would work alongside the equally as new and growing fleet of F-16A/Bs.
Operation Wooden Leg- The Multi-Role Eagle Is Born
The very idea of what the Baz/Eagle is, and how it could be used in combat, was totally changed on October 1st, 1985 when six F-15Ds and two F-15Cs flew over 1200 miles from their Israeli bases across the Mediterranean Sea to strike the PLO’s headquarters located on the coast of Tunis, Tunisia. This complex and risky strike, which was dubbed Operation Wooden Leg, was in retaliation for the supposed murder of three innocent Israelis yachting off of Cyprus. The PLO claimed they were Israeli spies.
At the time, this was the longest-range IAF airstrike ever, which took advantage of the Eagle’s great endurance, especially the new C/D models which carried approximately 2,000lbs of additional internal fuel than their predecessors. It was also made possible by IAF’s new aerial refueling capabilities, with two KC-707s being used as tankers and command posts for the mission. The tankers were procured in 1983 and the idea to give the Baz some sort of precision guided strike capability began around that same time. By 1985, crews were trained and the gear was ready for just this type of operation.
Still, training for something and executing it in reality are two entirely different things.
In order for the mission to succeed, the flight had to remain undetected by North African countries, as well as Syrian and even U.S. Naval vessel’s radars. As a result, the route was far from direct. An Israeli vessel with a helicopter aboard was pre-positioned off of Malta should any of the crews have to eject. Also, two spare F-15s, in addition to the eight primary attacker F-15s, would make it to the first refueling point before turning back. This was a hedge against any mechanical failures with the primary attack force.
Although the distances involved in the strike were groundbreaking, the fact that the F-15 would prove its ability to be adapted for the ground attack role in actual combat was monumental. The F-15A-D was actually built with a very austere ground attack capability based around gravity bombing with basic Mk82, 83 and 84 general purpose bombs. This largely dormant capability has never been exercised by any other operator but the IAF. Still, having the Baz lob dumb bombs at targets could not provide enough precision for such a high-value operation as Wooden Leg, which was aimed at telling the PLO, and the world, that Israel could retaliate against its enemies anywhere in the world via air power, with devastating results.
With this goal in mind, the six F-15Ds used in the strike were equipped with the ability to launch and guide a pair of 2,000lb GBU-15 optically guided glide bombs, with the backseaters controlling the massive weapons via a man-in-the-loop, two way data-link pod mounted on the Eagle’s centerline station.
The GBU-15 has a range of about 24 miles when launched from 40,000 feet, but in practice, a launch from 25,000 feet, with a range of about 12-15 miles is more common. The other two aircraft used on the raid were F-15Cs, which would be the last aircraft on target. They carried six 500lb Mk82s general purpose bombs each on a multiple ejector bomb racks attached to the Baz’s centerline station. In addition to air-to-ground weaponry, the Eagles flew with AIM-7 Sparrows and their 20mm cannon magazines topped off with 940 rounds (510 rounds in the D model), just in case an aerial threat materialized.
The jets, which had all their identifying marks stripped off before the mission, made it to their targets undetected. As the first wave of three Bazs approached the coastline they launched their weapons and obtained perfect results, with the second trio launching theirs GBU-15s shortly after. The flight lead then joined with the final pair of F-15Cs after the first 5 jets turned back towards the east, their wing stations now empty. He then push into the target area with the last two F-15Cs for their bomb runs, working as a spotter and taking photos of the damage for later assessment.
Almost every weapon hit their intended target, obliterating the PLO headquarters totally. For the IAF, the mission was a massive success, obliterating the briefed targets and killing large amounts of PLO personnel (IAF claimed around 60 PLO personnel were killed, while others claimed the death rate to be in the hundreds). The attacks resulted in broad international condemnation, even from the US, although for the Israelis the message they wanted to send to the world could not have been clearer. On top of this, they realized that their F-15 Baz fleet, which gained Israel air supremacy once and for all over the region in years prior, could become so much more, it could be a deterrent force aimed at enemies far from Israel’s borders.
Strike Eagles And FAST Packs
Although details of Israel’s startlingly long-ranged attack were kept out of the public eye following the mission, US intelligence services were surely aware of exactly how the mission was executed after the fact. The use of lightly modified F-15C/D Bazs undoubtedly gave further heft to the then finally blossoming F-15E Strike Eagle program, which had been envisioned in different configurations by McDonnell Douglas and the USAF as far back as the mid 1970s.
The F-15E’s official first flight, after the demonstrator beat out the F-16XL during a fly-off competition, would occur just a year after Operation Wooden Leg, with its introduction into USAF service occurring in 1988, although without many of its most advanced features available.
One of the features that the F-15E would be built with was conformal fuel tanks, otherwise known as “FAST Packs,” as in Fuel And Sensor Tactical Packs. These flank hugging 849 gallon tanks were not new to the F-15 with the advent of the Strike Eagle, in fact they were envisioned as an option for the F-15C/D and even retrofittable to the A and B models early on, with the first test flight being flown with them attached to an Eagle in the mid 1970s. They were envisioned to carry everything from fuel to cargo, although the majority of these concepts never made it to fruition.
USAF Eagles only took limited advantage of FAST packs, with some jets deployed to Iceland or stationed in Alaska using them sporadically for the long-range air sovereignty role. The IAF on the other hand saw the great utility in these conformal fuel tanks, not just to enhance range, but to make their air superiority focused Bazs true multi-role heavy fighters.
Like those found on the F-15E, F-15 Baz’s conformal tanks could be fitted with hardpoints for air-to-air missiles or for bombs. This allows for the Baz to fly missions with a pair of underwing tanks and even a centerline tank while still being able execute air-to-ground missions. Today, many Bazs can be seen fitted with indigenously developed FAST Packs built by IAI, but the fact is these were flying on Bazs many decades ago.
By many accounts, they we integral in giving the aircraft flown on Operation Wooden Leg enough range to make the mission possible, as their two wing stations were filled with one GBU-15 each, and their centerline station was fitted with the data-link pod needed to control these weapons. As a result, there was no room for external tanks aside from the FAST packs.
The IAF’s love affair with conformal fuel tanks continues on today, not just on the remaining Baz fleet, but also on every fighter aircraft ordered since the early 1990s. Additionally, fuel is not the only thing they carry. Sensors and emitters can also be fitted within them, giving the Baz a whole range of secondary mounting options beyond just its stock hardpoints.
Upgrades And Final Baz Orders
By the late 1980s, the IAF took delivery of yet another batch of F-15C/Ds, some of the last ever built. Then, following the Gulf War, the US awarded Israel with 12 surplus F-15As and a single surplus F-15B, all from Louisiana Air National Guard stocks, as a thank you for not intervening in Operation Desert Storm even though Saddam’s SCUD missiles were fell on the country throughout the conflict. Exactly what happened to these aircraft remains unclear. Some were said to have been in worse condition than Israel’s own F-15A/Bs, although the B model, which the IAF puts a heavy value on, was surely integrated into the Baz fleet. The rest of the aircraft may have been used for training and/or cannibalized for spare parts.
During this same time period, much like its once Fleet Defender turned attack aircraft naval counterpart, the F-14 Tomcat, the Baz fleet received small upgrades enhancing its ability to attack ground targets. The longer range Popeye air-to-surface missile was integrated into the Baz’s repertoire, which greatly expanded the Baz’s standoff ground attack range to almost 50 miles. Still, the Popeye used a similar, demanding control interface as the GBU-15 and it was an expensive and powerful weapon. Nonetheless, it made the Baz fleet more capable of striking targets deep in highly defended enemy territory than ever before.
The Python 4 high-off-boresight short-range air-to-air missile and the Elbit DASH helmet mounted sight were introduced into the fleet as well. This gave Baz pilots the ability to engage enemy fighters far off the jet’s centerline by having the pilot simply look at the target and fire the missile. This was a first for the F-15 and a capability that would only come to USAF F-15s well over a decade later in the form of the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System and the AIM-9X Sidewinder.
The Baz also saw air-to-ground combat once again during Operation Accountability on July 25, 1993, striking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. This was the first time the Baz had hit targets in the regional defense role, something that would become a bread and butter mission for the big fighter in the new millennium.
Baz 2000 and The F-15I Ra’am
The Louisiana air guard surplus F-15As and single F-15B were the last batch of F-15 Bazs delivered to the IAF, with orders switching over to the F-15E Strike Eagle derivative, known as the F-15I “Ra’am” or “Thunder” after 1993.
Ever since the Strike Eagle become operational in USAF service, Israel was interested in buying the advanced jet, yet the US was not willing to sell it to them. Then, the signing of the Oslo Accords occurred in 1993, which opened the door for Israel’s Strike Eagle wishes to become a reality. This is very similar as to how the signing of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty opened the door to the F-16 for the IAF about a decade and a half earlier.
Price was a major issue surrounding the Strike Eagle purchase. The aircraft would cost almost three times that of an F-16, and close to double that of a F/A-18. The fact that unique Israeli sub-systems would need to be integrated into the Strike Eagle design only made procuring large amounts of the jets more cost prohibitive. Israel even looked at buying used F-111s Aardvarks instead of the Strike Eagle, along with more F-16s, as a way to get more value for their dollar. After closely examining F-111 operations at RAF Lakenheath in England, they realized the maintenance required for the swing-wing bombers would be prohibitive. Also, the F-111 had very little ability to defend itself against enemy fighters, so it would still rely on the F-15 to get its job done.
In the end, a total of just 25 of the Strike Eagle derivatives would be ordered and they would become the most capable fighter in IAF service. As a way of augmenting the reduced F-15I buy, Israel would procure a similarly modified, but much more plentiful F-16I “Sufa,” or “Storm,” fighter fleet of 100 jets.
By the mid 1990s, with 100 F-16Is and 25 F-15Is on order, Israel turned its focus on a much needed deep F-15 Baz upgrade program, with enhancements similar to those found in the USAF’s F-15 MSIP (Multi-Stage Improvement Program). Israel had to chose between going through an American led improvement program, or largely going about enhancing the now dated Baz for the coming decades on its own.
The IAF chose to indigenously upgrade the Baz fleet, mainly due to cost and the fact that their own unique sub-systems would have to be integrated anyway. Known as the Baz 2000 program, this reworking of the best of the IAF’s Baz fleet would give F-15A/B/C/D aircraft a common cockpit configuration, although that was just the start of the improvements.
Many of the upgrades were ported over from the F-15I, while others were unique to the Baz fleet. The radars were upgraded to fire the AIM-120 AMRAAM. A new Hands-On Throttle And Stick setup was installed. Multi-function displays were added to the cockpit, both front and aft in the B/D model’s case. Enhanced data-links and updated communications gear were installed. A new electronic warfare suite was also integrated into the middle aged jets along with new mission computers and navigation systems (with embedded GPS). Enhanced cooling was also a much needed feature. To support these new systems, the Bazs were totally rewired, which in itself was an impressive feat.
In the end, the Baz 2000 initiative gobbled up an incredible 8,000 man hours per jet and ran from 1995 to 2005. Israeli technicians found that many jets was built slightly differently, so they could not just replace one black box with another, each jet had to be worked on in a one by one basis. The whole process was said to be a grueling one.
The result of the costly program was a Baz that looked very similar to the way it did decades before, but when it came to deadliness and adaptability, it was an entirely different animal. Because Israel had flown the wings off (literally!) of a good portion of the oldest Baz fleet, not every available airframe was put through the Baz 2000 upgrade program, with only the cream of the fleet (about 50 aircraft) being renewed for decades of future operations.
The Baz Is Old But Wise
Israel’s reinvigorated Baz fleet has never been more relevant than it is today. The advent of GPS guided weaponry, such as the JDAM, allows them to finally work as pinpoint, all weather, fixed target strikers without having to rely on cumbersome optically guided weaponry. They can also still work as standoff weapons haulers as they had for decades, the only difference being that now Israel has a whole array of standoff weaponry that can be tailored to the target at hand. In addition, the Baz’s speed, range and stability made it an ideal platform for tactical reconnaissance, and large reconnaissance pods have been seen slung underneath these jets over the last decade or so.
Because the Baz still has similar range as its more contemporary successors, the F-15I and the F-16I, it can work as a forward deployed networking and command and control node, absorbing the battle picture via data-link from fighters within its line of sight and then beaming this information up to a satellite, which then beams it back down to Israeli commanders hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. This can also go in the opposite direction, with new orders, alerts of pop-up air defenses, and other updates being sent from behind friendly lines or from orbiting strategic intelligence aircraft to the F-15B/D Baz. From here, the Baz can disperse this information to the rest of the non-satellite communications equipped strike package.
This high bandwidth satellite communications modification can be seen on F-15B/Ds packing a large bulbous R2-D2 like satellite communications dome just behind the environmental cooling system vent, located on the jet’s forward spine..
Going ‘downtown’ over enemy territory with a strike package is something a traditional command and control aircraft cannot do, but the Baz can. In fact, it can do this while also doing other tasks, such as electronic warfare, attacking fixed targets or conducting counter-air duties. The later of which is what the Baz was originally envisioned for, and with an unbeaten Israeli combat record to this day of 50 to 0, it is a mission the jet is still very capable of.
The Baz Continues To Confront Threats Both Old And New
In recent years, the upgraded Baz fleet has been used in conflicts near and within Israel’s borders as well as far beyond them. With the IAF taking out Syrian and Hezbollah targets on a seemingly regular basis, and long-range raids, like the one on the Khartoum weapons dump in 2012, continuing to be an operational reality, the IAF’s F-15 fleet remains a cherished resource. Additionally, the Baz has been used on attack missions within Israel’s own borders during conflicts in Gaza, the most recent being the wide-ranging and controversial Operation Pillar Defense.
Still, no target looms larger for all of Israel’s longer-ranged fighter force than Iran and its nuclear facilities. Clearly, this mission alone has helped justify the continued investment into the aging F-15 Baz fleet. The jet’s ability to lug large weapons over long distances and be rapidly adapted to various roles beyond fighter or bomber makes it an intrinsic part of any potential sustained air operation against Iranian nuclear interests. This is especially true if Israel were to have to take a long, round-about route to strike Iran, a feat that will push the IAF’s small but growing tanker fleet to the absolute max.
The Baz is scheduled to not just remain in service for decades to come, but to also receive more investment in the form of additional upgrades. These proposed upgrades could include improving the jet’s radar, upgrading its electronic warfare capability, integrating new weapons, and fielding new cockpit display interfaces. Even a possible structural upgrade may be ordered. This should allow at least the F-15C/D portion of the Baz fleet to continue flying well into the next two decades, at which time it will be joined by the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
If the F-15C/D Baz fleet were to see an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar upgrade, similar to the USAF’s APG-63V3 radar upgrade for its Eagles, such a powerful radar system could be a force multiplier for the rest of Israel’s fighter fleet. It could provide long-range situational awareness, enhanced ability to spot low-flying cruise missiles and stealthy targets in the homeland defense roll, and it could be yet another electronic attack weapon in Israel’s already bristling bag of electronic warfare tricks.
Such a system could also benefit the F-35, which like all stealth aircraft, best goes about its business without putting any electromagnetic energy into the environment around it. Instead, it could use the F-15C/D’s AESA radar information, taken from dozens of miles to its rear and sent forward to the F-35 via data-link, to evade or even prosecute aerial targets without emitting any electromagnetic energy at all. Similar tactics have been developed for the USAF’ sF-15C/D and F-22 air dominance team.
Although it remains unclear if the Baz will make the leap into the AESA capability space, it is possible, although it depends on Israel’s impression of the F-35. If the F-35 becomes a favored part of the IAF’s arsenal, it will compete for large portions of the IAF’s available funds, just like it does within the Pentagon today. Such a struggle could limit how much more the Baz evolves, no matter how relevant the jet remains. If further upgrades do indeed comes to pass, the Baz could remain Israel’s long sword and watchful sentinel for decades to come, adding to a legacy that has become the most illustrious in the history of modern air combat.
Photo credits, a huge thanks to Nir Ben-Yosef for providing the images where marked. All other images via IAF. USAF, AP, Public Domain
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com