Will Silent Eagle Get Kicked out of the Nest?

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With Boeing adjusting from its blistering loss to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 for the sale of 60 fighters to Seoul, the company has yet to officially sentence the so-called Silent Eagle moniker to death.

 

But, maybe it is time?

“The pieces are there … whether we will continue to call it that moniker,” Chris Raymond, vice president of business development and strategy for Boeing Defense, Space and Security, told Aviation Week. “That [name] was unique to that offering.”

The Silent Eagle was unveiled to the press in 2009, when an F-15E demonstrator was mocked up with nonfunctioning stealthy, canted tails and outfitted with a conformal weapons bay, which was showcased for the media during a ground-based demonstration. These upgrades were designed to reduce the frontal radar cross section brought on by the Strike Eagle, thus making it more “silent” to enemy air defenses. The Silent Eagle, and a similar upgrade package for the F/A-18E/F, is being offered to customers as potential alternatives to Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35.

In 2009 the F-35 was in a much more precarious position than it is today. It was nearing a $4.6 billion restructuring, which was done in 2010. Now, however, the Pentagon is pledging its seemingly endless support for the single-engine F-35; the remaining question for the program is one of cost and how many fighters the Pentagon and foreign customers can ultimately afford.

Boeing was careful to never publicly position itself as pitching the Silent Eagle for the U.S. Air Force, which has staunchly pursued a policy for years of purchasing only so called fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s, both produced by Lockheed Martin. This moniker, coined by Lockheed Martin marketers and later adopted by the Pentagon, refers to the combination of stealthy shape and coatings, integrated avionics and mission processing.

At the rollout, Brad Jones, who then led the Silent Eagle effort, said the aircraft was intended for foreign customers, namely Israel and South Korea. However, both of these loyal F-15 buyers passed on it. And, their support for the F-35 was so strong, they compromised in order to be able to buy it. In the case of Tel Aviv, officials opted for fewer F-35s upfront than originally planned. Likewise, Seoul has compromised on initial numbers owing to cost and selected the F-35 even though Boeing’s bid was the only once that was compliant with its competition plan.

The Silent Eagle package is more than just external features optimized for a reduced radar cross section. Also included are options for an active, electronically scanned array radar, digital electronic warfare system and enhanced weapons loadout with the use of wing stations 1 and 9. These developments are being paid for by Saudi Arabia, which is buying the most advanced version of the F-15 for its military. The Saudi order will carry the line through 2018; a buy from South Korea would have extended production by another three years, according to Steve Winkler, who heads F-15 business development, last year.

Also available for the F-15 is the addition of fly-by-wire flight controls and an updated core processor and larger, multifunction cockpit displays.

Boeing launched an AIM 120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (Amraam) from the Silent Eagle conformal fuel tank carried by the F-15 demonstrator in 2010, Winkler said. At the time, the demonstrator did not have the canted tails.

Boeing officials are mum today on whether design teams are continuing work on the Silent Eagle enhancements, especially those associated with the stealth features intended to take on the F-35. “We don’t comment on activities of our workforce,” said Karen Fincutter, a Boeing spokeswoman. “The demonstrator is still available and Boeing is working with the Air Force to determine its future use to the program.”

What may never be fully known is just why the Silent Eagle didn’t take flight. Perhaps it was timing; if it had come on the scene earlier, while F-35 was far less mature, could it have gotten a few orders? Perhaps.

Or, perhaps, it was ultimately a function of cost. Company officials never cited a clear flyway figure. However, Jones cited a ballpark under $100 million at the unveiling, but the official bid to South Korea was not made public. Low-rate initial production lot 5 F-35As, which are on the final assembly line at Lockheed Martin now, are being produced with an intended target cost of $105 million. The total including an engine is estimated to be up to $124 million. It could be that allies are just willing to pay more and wait a little longer to buy into the JSF club.

During last year’s briefing on the Silent Eagle, Winkler hinted that the company had a growth path for the Strike Eagle beyond the Silent Eagle package, though he declined to outline its specifics.

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