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F-15EX: The Fighter Jet That Russia and China Love

Boeing F-15EX
F-15 X (Image: Boeing)

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has signed a contract to acquire over 140 F-15EX Eagle II, or more commonly know these days as the F-15EX fighter. In an era of great power competition, the colossal procurement is one of USAF’s most poorly considered acquisitions in recent years–a cost-ineffective investment into an increasingly outdated style of warfare.

F-15EX, Explained

The Boeing F-15EX is the latest variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle, which itself is based on the 1972 F-15 Eagle. The EX upgrade package offers several improvements over the original model, including a better radar, new avionics, and a revised cockpit display.

These minor improvements notwithstanding, the fact remains that the EX is based on a roughly forty-five-year-old airframe. The F-15 Eagle was once one of the best fighters in its class, but aircraft design– and, with it, anti-air weaponry–has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970s.

As a fourth-generation fighter, the F-15EX utterly lacks the stealth features necessary to operate effectively in the context of modern air combat. Simply put, the F-15EX is not survivable against the modern surface-to-air and air-to-air weapons of great powers like Russia and China. With the ongoing global proliferation of Russia’s formidable S-400 missile system and the imminent debut of its S-500 successor, it will become progressively harder for F-15EX squadrons to fly in contested airspace without incurring active risks.

Even older weapons like North Korea’s KN-06 surface-to-air missile system (SAM) can feasibly threaten the F-15EX if not suppressed or otherwise neutralized beforehand. By the time that most F-15EX’s enter service over the coming decade, these design shortcomings will become even more of a liability than they currently are.

A Plane Built for the Cold War, Not the 21st Century

However, argue its proponents, what the F-15EX lacks in survivability, it makes up for with sheer firepower. It is undeniably true that the F-15EX boasts a prodigious armament suite; with its new Advanced Missile and Bomb Ejection Rack (AMBER) system, the fighter is capable of carrying as many as twenty-two onboard air-to-air missiles.

Sure, that sounds very appealing, but we need to separate hype from the realities of modern warfare. First, it hardly matters how many missiles the F-15EX can carry if it doesn’t survive long enough to use them.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that the F-35 can carry a similarly impressive sixteen missiles in its “third day of war”–also known as “beast mode”–configuration. What practical battlefield tasks can be accomplished with twenty-two missiles that can’t be accomplished with sixteen missiles? It is difficult to conceive of a remotely likely scenario in which the F-15EX would both need, and be able to, unload its entire payload.

Further still, the F-35 offers far greater operational versatility by being able to swap between stealth and external configurations depending on the mission type. While impressive on paper, the F-15EX’s weapons capacity seems more like a gimmick than a practical battlefield feature– an exaggerated solution in search of a contrived problem.

F-15EX Eagle II

The Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-15EX Eagle II, was revealed and named during a ceremony, April 7, 2021, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The aircraft will be the first Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end, through combined developmental and operational tests. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)

Boeing F-15EX

Boeing F-15EX. Image: Boeing artist rendition.

Boeing F-15EX

Boeing F-15EX. Artist Image from Boeing.

New battlefield challenges call for fundamentally new technical solutions like stealth performance and deep penetration capabilities. The F-15EX platform does not, and cannot, provide the USAF with a sound foundation for sustainable growth. As Washington’s great-power competitors and regional rivals continue to procure increasingly more sophisticated anti-air capabilities, it makes little financial or military sense to invest in the capabilities of a bygone era.

Written By

Mark Episkopos is a National Security expert focusing on Russia. He is a Senior National Security Reporter for The National Interest.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Anthony

    August 11, 2021 at 10:33 am

    Mark, You have a hillariously naive view of why the air force is buying the F-15. They are not buying it to use it in warfare with a country. They know the survivability of the aircraft. Also, the airforce is about air to air combat. When is the last time we had a war with air to air combat (dogfights)? 30 years ago? Warfare has changed in the last 30 years. They bought it for the warfare with congress. The money warfare.
    After acquiring 140 f-15, 5 years later they will go to congress complaining about how outmoded they are and asking for a trillion to buy the latest plane. Since the defense budget is a third rail of politics if you want to get reelected, they will get their trillion and the money merry-go-round continues to spin. The f15s will quietly be sold to the Saudis or some other country.

  2. Jonathan Fox

    August 11, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    You know nothing about warfare. Even though the basic airframe is old, the F15EX is still a more capable platform than anything that our enemies have. Plus our middle systems are capable of taking out our enemies air defenses at a moment’s notice. That gives the EX free range to excel in what the F15 is for, air superiority. The F22 is too expensive to re start the production line, and the F35 is a disappointment to say the least. Two thirds of our squadrons equipped with them are grounded due to engine defects, and they can’t get engines for them! What good is a stealth fighter if it can’t even fly? You know nothing John Snow, NOTHING!

  3. Ian

    August 11, 2021 at 4:16 pm

    Wow you are absolutely clueless mark. You fail to understand the purpose of this aircraft. The f35 is not a do it all fighter, and actually it’s more of a bomber. Good luck surviving in a f35 if you are anywhere near visual range of your opponent. The f35 needs air superiority jets. Just a super naive article

  4. Hobbledeehoy

    August 11, 2021 at 6:15 pm

    Many day to day missions and taskings do not require high end stealth aircraft built for “day one” air operations against a peer adversary.

    Using your high end f35 for every task not only wears them out faster, but the operation and maintenance costs for an F35 is roughly double that of an F15.

    The new F15 is a capable and potent platform, just one you wouldn’t want to throw against PLA integrated air defenses at the beginning of a conflict.

  5. James Rumann

    August 11, 2021 at 6:20 pm

    The F15EX fills a gap that neither the f22 or F35 can fill. Yes its older but is still fast and some of the major shortcomings are fixed in the updated systems. Most aircraft detection is done by stand off methods since a fighters best friend is hiding the minute it starts scanning the sky with its own radar its like turning on a lighthouse in the dark everyone looking for you will know where you are. They have F15EX for the same reason the F4s, F111 lasted so long they are great a multipurpose roles and do not meed fighter escorts everywhere.

  6. V Mac

    August 11, 2021 at 6:27 pm

    Editorial sponsored by Lockheed

  7. Steven Long

    August 11, 2021 at 8:13 pm

    The F-15EX my looks like the same old airframe to the uneducated eye but this is not the 1972 aircraft you say it is,no no mo. If only you knew! Let me ask you this, how can a stealthy F-35 with externally mounted weapons pylons and bombs be stealthy? And it will never carry the weapons load as a F-15EX can! Get your facts straight before you speak you negative words.

  8. Mark S

    August 11, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    The f15 Eagle II is NOT your fathers f15! Yes it uses the same airframe (upgraded) but the avionics, radar, communication links, electronic warfare systems and payload are far superior to previous f15s. The Eagle II is intended to compliment f35s and f22 who can fire the missiles on the f15 or send linked info to it. We’re in a bad spot with all the cost overruns and shortcomings and downtime of the f35. All the equipment to build the f22 is gone and it’s expensive to maintain. Simply put,the Eagle II is the best bang for the buck until the 6th generation fighter is deployed.

  9. armando mendietta

    August 11, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    The Israelis seem to have little problem taking out Russian sam systems with F-15 and F-16’s

  10. Barry Klinedinst

    August 12, 2021 at 12:09 am

    The F15EX is a great aircraft. All new electronics, fly by wire and plenty of thrust . It won’t be long until people find a way to detect stealth. The Eagle is a great platform and I think it will go down in history as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Sometimes it’s hard to beat a great design. Old or not.

  11. Jim Kirwan

    August 12, 2021 at 1:43 am

    We have F-22’s and F-35’s to suppress the anti air defenses. We will have F-15E and EX’s to destroy the enemy!

  12. Canofjuice

    August 12, 2021 at 1:56 am

    Hey Mark. Simply put – the F-15EX is being bought to do two things:

    1) Serve as a cheap and easy replacement for existing F-15 C/D’s in the national air defense mission. (Something you don’t need F-35’s and 22’s for.)

    2) Serve as a missile truck… F-35’s closer to the enemy pick out targets and que missiles from F-15EX’s much further back. This is called sensor and shooter, and allows the F-35 (sensor) to score kills without breaking stealth by opening its weapon bays.

    And F-15EX’s can carry a LOT of missiles.

    All that aside, the F-15EX is significantly more capable than I think you realize, but that’s not the issue. Your argument is about application. Fighting Russians head to head while barreling blindly into enemy air defenses is not the intended application.

    If you want a real bone to chew on, all of we should be buying manned fighters at all.

  13. Steven Franklin

    August 12, 2021 at 8:23 am

    One pertinent fact in the procurement of the EX varient is the advanced avionics suite. Undoubtedly this includes “loyal wingman” capability as well as extended radar and communication upgrades that will give the proven platform a primary role in innoculating contested air space against peer threats. It’s never about any singular weapon, but rather a weapon system with the capability of deploying and controlling less expensive, far more stealthy and highly accurate front line weapons.
    That it will carry a huge amount of air to air missiles should clue the average observer into the concept of systems survivability, ie, defending unmanned aircraft from enemy action. The AAMRAM missile with a (published) range of 120 miles and a radar capability of tracking multiple hostiles just in the F-15s ‘E’ configuration and it’s record as the ONLY aircraft never having suffered a loss in air to air conflict is beyond just a mitigating factor. You’ve not just missed the boat, you’re not even in the same ocean.

  14. Jimbo

    August 12, 2021 at 9:26 am

    Russia has one, yeah one mock up stealth fighter. China may have up to a couple dozen, so l dont see how some foriegn entities can overwhelm us. You also fail to note that one third of f35’s are grounded due to lack of parts available for US planes, that parts are funneled to keep our allies planes going. Anyways the f35 is 15 years+ late and the USAF, existing fighters are old and need to be replaced immediately or have no planes… but keep pimping up the almost 25 year old design f35 that cant stay in the air.

  15. AirForce7

    August 12, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    I was privileged and honored to have served in the U.S. Air Force and Mark, with all due respects, the Air Force knew and I dare say still, knows what they’re doing. What you may NOT know is there are more ways to be stealthy than just the shape, materials used and configurations.
    At the time of my service I was surprised to be privi to what most probably know by now. The U. S. Military is 50 years ahead in technology than the civilian sector. That’s like the difference between a Model A compared to a modern day Ferrari.
    So, if the U.S. Air Force is buying a new version of the proven F-15(EX) you can bet it’s equally survivable or more so than ones definition of a stealth fighter. Stop to think if you will, why we only bought a certain amount of F-22s. Don’t give me the argument about budgets. We “discovered” something better.
    (Now we can talk about budgets) So if we can purchase a proven platform for far less expense than an F-22 and make it more survivable plus carry all the weapons, well I would say that’s a no-brained.
    Instead of China and Russia “ loving” the F-15EX they should worry. Or more appropriately, they already are.

  16. sbin

    August 12, 2021 at 8:38 pm

    F35 is a useless budget hog.
    B52 airframe will hit 100 years in service.
    F15 ex order is correcting the F35 failure.
    That hanger queen is only capable of generating revenue for contractors.

  17. Bob Aucutt

    August 12, 2021 at 9:51 pm

    The author of this article HAS to be in the employ of the Chinese or Russian government. So naive…incredible!!!!

  18. Vince Pascual

    August 13, 2021 at 6:34 am

    I’ve always loved the F-15 Eagle, even more now in this latest variant. Plus the fact that this new platform was built for new upgrades down the road, makes the F-15EX an even more formidable aircraft. Not to mention the ease of transition for current Eagle C & D drivers, which by the way will save the Air Force lots of time and $$$, makes the EX a very welcome addition to the Air Force stable.

  19. Floyce White

    August 13, 2021 at 7:53 am

    Every aircraft can be seen with ordinary civilian airport radar. World War II radar even. All that stealth techniques do is decrease the radar visibility — most importantly, in the shorter wavelength bands that are used to guide missiles to very exact locations. Once Russia and China became aware of the existence of stealth planes, they greatly increased the number of radar stations and improved detection by other means (lidar, infrared heat seeking, etc.).

    As far as the aerodynamics of the F-15, the Russians essentially copied it with their Sukhoi 27 “Flanker.” Their best air superiority fighter now is an updated Flanker, the Sukhoi 35. Same for China, which just put in a request for more Su-35s.

  20. Jim

    August 31, 2021 at 1:31 am

    This article is biased. His argument begins and ends with the F-15 not being stealthy. No kidding.

    The author doesn’t mention that the F-15EX could carry a hypersonic missile up to 22 feet long and 7,000 pounds on the centerline. An F-15 tested an ASAT missile, the ASM-135, that was 18 feet long and 2,600 pounds in the 1980’s.

    He doesn’t address the fact that air-launched weapons have greater range when the aircraft is travelling higher and/or faster. The F-15 can do both of these well, making it ideal for supporting fifth generation fighters as a “missile truck”.

    The AIM-260, the new long-range AAM about to enter service, will probably be longer, heavier, or both, than the AMRAAM. Which means it may not fit inside a F-22 or F-35 weapons bay.

    What will carry these out-sized missiles? An F-35 with external hardpoints? What’s the use then of a stealth platform carrying external missiles on the first day of a war? Why spend all that money for such a glaring contradiction?

    The author doesn’t explain.

  21. El Barto

    October 18, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    It’s a fact that the shape and form of the advanced airframe can effectively reduce the RCS (along with energy absorbent skin materials). However, it may be just a phase in the development of the manned fighter aircraft. The industry is moving fast towards the unmanned.

    Both, the Russian and the Chinese stealth fighters are not truly stealth. They all fly with conventional round jet exhausts which are not stealthy at all. That makes one believe those fighters are nothing but pretenders. Just for the show.

    All the new AESA radars in development may further reduce the effectiveness of the conventional stealth. This decade will also see a massive increase of AI in software. They claim a stealth fighter has a RCS of an eagle/crow/pigeon, take your pick, but the AESA with AI will follow the bird then (which is doing 490 knots!).

    Maybe the U.S.A.F. knows this already. Many other airforces not convinced with the cost-effectiveness of the stealth are instead investing on active jamming, congesting the airwaves. Any fighter with radar turned on will be a beacon. Why not go all the way and hide yourself in the sun?

    You can’t judge a book by it’s covers. For sure, the F-15EX was designed for a purpose and will fit that purpose nicely in the future. Not all missions require stealth. The A-10 refuses to die also, time after time.

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