Is F-15EX A Good Example Of USAF’s Digital Century Series?

F-15EX aircraft in flight
Credit: Boeing

Ask the Editors: The Aviation Week Network invites our readers to submit questions to our editors and analysts. We’ll answer them, and if we can’t we’ll reach out to our wide network of experts for advice.

Do you think the F-15EX is a good first example of the U.S. Air Force’s “Digital Century Series”?

Defense Editor Steve Trimble responds:

The F-15EX appears to be an excellent example of applying digital engineering tools to revamp key aspects of a mature product. But the F-15EX program is not designed to be directly compatible with the U.S. Air Force’s ideal approach to the Digital Century Series initiative, as it has been articulated by Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The Air Force has ordered the first two of at least 144 F-15EX jets in the program of record, which is planned to be delivered in August 2021. The baseline aircraft includes one unique system for the Air Force: The BAE Systems Enhanced Passive/Active Warning Survivability System (Epawss). But the rest of the program is derived from the F-15QA ordered by Qatar. The F-15QA introduced a new lightweight wing and forward fuselage, which Boeing designed with digital engineering tools, allowing for a cheaper and more efficient production system.

By using this approach, Boeing can allow new suppliers to compete to build the redesigned wing and fuselage components. Boeing also advertises that the redesign components will significantly reduce maintenance costs, including eliminating the need for programmed depot maintenance. Each represents a significant improvement compared with traditional aerospace manufacturing—but the Air Force still intends to go much further with the Digital Century Series initiative.

The service expects to close a business case shortly for a Digital Century Series model for Next-Generation Air Dominance aircraft. The model assumes a digital engineering approach that Boeing used for the redesigned components in the F-15EX, but the Air Force will demand a digital model of all the components in an aircraft. Another key difference is that the Air Force expects to own the design rights to the aircraft and operational flight program. Boeing owns the intellectual property for the F-15EX, but this must be sold or given to the government under the Digital Century Series.

The Air Force will seek to build multiple aircraft types in parallel under the Digital Century Series approach but only in small production batches of dozens or perhaps hundreds. The aircraft types will vary but share as many common components as possible to limit redesign, production tooling and sustainment costs. All the aircraft will also share a common operating system, allowing the Air Force to distribute software-enabled capability improvements across the fleet simultaneously and instantly.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.