It was a treble celebration in Riyadh at the King Faisal Air Academy (KFAA) as the college celebrated its 50th anniversary, marked the graduation of its 91st course of students, and welcomed the first of the Boeing F-15SA tactical fighters developed for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).
King Salman attended the celebrations with his son, Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Omar Al-Bashir, president of Sudan.
The day’s ceremonial included a parade and a flypast, which featured one of the first four F-15SAs delivered, while two more aircraft were displayed on the ground.
The king and the other VIP guests were also shown a specially commissioned film marking the 50th anniversary of the KFAA, and another about the new F-15SA and its advanced technologies.
The F-15SA is a derivative of the two-seat F-15E Strike Eagle multi-role fighter, and is claimed to be the most advanced variant of the Eagle built to date, incorporating a host of features taken from the advanced F-15K Slam Eagle (used by South Korea) and the F-15SG (operated by Singapore), as well as some ‘new-to-the-Eagle’ systems.
It features two additional outboard under-wing hardpoints (stations 1 and 9). Their use required the development and installation of a new digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, which now features a disorientation recovery capability.
The aircraft is equipped with the Raytheon APG-63(V)3 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, BAE Systems’ digital electronic warfare system/common missile warning system (DEWS/CMWS), a joint helmet-mounted cueing system (JHMCS), and an AN/AAS-42 infrared search and track (IRST) system, as well as the Tiger Eyes third generation low altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) navigation pod.
Contrary to expectations, the aircraft does not feature the new large-area display used by the F-35 in either cockpit.
The F-15SA is powered by increased thrust General Electric F110-GE-129 engines and is able to carry a wide variety of weapons, including long-range AIM-120C7 advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) and short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, AGM-84 SLAM-ER air-to-surface missiles, AGM-88 HARM high-speed anti-radiation missiles and GBU-39 small diameter bombs (SDBs), as well as laser- and dual-mode laser/GPS-guided weapons of up to 2,000lb weight.
Saudi selection of the F-15SA reflected the kingdom’s long-standing policy of dividing its major aircraft procurements between the US and Europe (mainly the UK).
Having ordered an initial batch of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon swing-role fighters, Saudi attention switched back to the USA, and to new derivatives of the F-15E, including the ‘stealthy’ F-15SE Silent Eagle and other ‘advanced F-15’ configurations that were not low observable (LO) or stealthy, but did incorporate advanced targeting systems and new weapons capabilities.
The fighter offers little that the Typhoon does not already provide, though it does have an AESA radar (an as yet unfunded upgrade for Saudi Typhoons).
Though the F-15SA has a long-range and heavy-payload capability, the aircraft does not have a long-range stand-off weapon in the class of the Storm Shadow cruise missile, now being integrated on RSAF Typhoons.
The RSAF requested 84 new-built F-15SA jets and an upgrade package for the 70 surviving Saudi F-15S fighter-bombers (to bring them to the same standard) in 2010, and this request was notified to the US Congress in November 2010.
The resulting $29.4 billion contract for 154 advanced Eagles, plus logistics, spares, maintenance support and weapons, signed on December 29 2011, formed the biggest component in a $60 billion package that became the biggest-ever US arms sale to a foreign country.
Attrition of the RSAF’s F-15S fleet means that there will now be no more than 68 aircraft available for conversion, reducing the total F-15SA force to a maximum of 152 aircraft, and likely fewer than that, with further attrition likely between now and the end of the conversion programme, and with the first three instrumented prototype aircraft unlikely to enter operational service.
A total of 144 F-15SAs would allow the RSAF to field six squadrons. The first of these will be the 55th Squadron, currently the F-15S training unit and slated to be the Formal Training Unit (FTU) for the F-15SA.
The 55th Squadron is part of the 5th Wing at King Khalid Air Base at Khamis Mushayt in southwest Saudi Arabia, along with the 6th Squadron, which is also due to convert from the F-15S to the F-15SA.
F-15SAs will also replace the original F-15S variant with the 92nd Squadron, part of the 3rd Wing at King Abdullah Aziz Air Base at Dhahran, on the Gulf coast, near Bahrain, and with an un-numbered Weapons & Tactics School (possibly known as the Fighter Weapons School) co-located at Dhahran, and probably forming part of the 11th Wing.
The remaining three F-15SA units are expected to include the 29th Squadron at King Faisal Air Base (KFAB) at Tabuk in the northwest of the country. This unit is not currently active, having last operated the Tornado ADV until disbandment in 2007.
Two more units could include the 15th Squadron (an inactive former F-5E unit previously based at Khamis Mushayt) and the 17th Squadron (an inactive former F-5E unit once based at Taif).
Other possible numberplates would be those of the 42nd and 66th Squadrons, former Dhahran-based units operating the F-15C/D and Tornado, respectively.
The full order was originally to have been fulfilled by 2019, but the programme has already suffered significant delays, mainly due to difficulties in the development and clearance of the new FBW flight control system, which held up delivery of the first aircraft by more than a year.
The first four F-15SAs arrived in Saudi Arabia on December 13 2016, supported by a USAF KC-10A Extender tanker and staging via RAF Lakenheath, a US Air Force F-15 Eagle base in the UK.
Two of the aircraft were new-build F-15SAs (the sixth and tenth off the line) while the remaining pair were the ‘prototype’ conversions – existing F-15S airframes converted to F-15SA standards under the so-called F-15SR programme (though Arabian Aerospace understands that the F-15SR designation will not be used in service). One of these was converted by a Boeing team, the second by a Saudi team from the newly rebranded Alsalam Aerospace Industries, formerly known as the Alsalam Aircraft Company.
Alsalam is building new forward fuselage sections, wings and under-wing pylons for the remanufactured aircraft, which will be converted at its facilities in Riyadh.
All four aircraft were hastily repainted with Saudi national markings (having been ferried wearing USAF star and bar insignia), and also gained the RSAF’s now obligatory ‘God Bless You’ logos before joining the F-15SA Formal Training Unit at Khamis Mushayt Air Base. Interestingly, the RSAF painters seem to have overlooked the US star and bar marking above the port wing!
A second batch of three further new-build F-15SAs arrived in Saudi Arabia in early February (a fourth aircraft having returned to Boeing’s factory airfield at St Louis, Missouri, having suffered a technical problem). A third batch of five aircraft arrived in late March.
Initial plans for a US-based training unit were abandoned and, instead, the 55th Squadron, with a cadre of largely Boeing-employed US instructors, immediately began training experienced RSAF F-15S aircrew on the new type.
Ironically, on the same day that the first four aircraft arrived in Saudi Arabia, US media reported that the White House had stepped in to halt the sale of a $1.29 billion package of Paveway II, Enhanced Paveway II and Paveway III laser-guided bombs, unguided bombs, joint direct attack munition (JDAM) tail kits and other bomb components. These were intended to replenish the RSAF’s current weapons supplies, which were becoming depleted due to the high operational tempo in multiple counter-terrorism operations, rebuilding war reserves and providing options for future contingencies. They were halted due to US concern over civilian casualties of Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen.
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