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F-15EX: The ‘Suicide’ Fighter the Air Force Would Be Crazy to Buy

F-15EX Suicide Fighter
The F-15EX, the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft, arrives to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida March 11. The aircraft will be the first Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end through combined developmental and operational tests. The 40th Flight Test Squadron and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron personnel are responsible for testing the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Karissa Rodriguez)

A few months back, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith lamented the supposedly exorbitant costs and “poor track record” of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Smith’s lack of expertise in airpower might qualify him for a pass, of sorts, for those ill-informed comments. But, Gen. “CQ” Brown’s recent public statements on the subject are real head-scratchers.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Brown, the current Air Force Chief of Staff,  is sending mixed signals—being openly tepid toward the F-35 one minute, then trying to reassure the world of his support for the fighter the next.

In the past, Brown expressed his intent to conduct a study to determine what the right mix of fifth-generation fighters and fourth-generation fighters should be.

That in itself is puzzling, as the ink hasn’t faded on his predecessor’s study “The Air Force We Need” which should have more than answered that question.

What are we to make of this? First, let’s consider the advantage of sustaining a “balance” of outdated weapons systems and leading-edge fighters by looking back at the last time we actually fought a war with a peer competitor with mixed fleets of aircraft. (We’ll come back to the question of cost shortly.)

In the days leading up to World War II, the Roosevelt administration moved aggressively to build a fleet of the most viable fighter aircraft available: the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. First flown in 1938, the P-40 began rolling off production lines in 1939, and by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. had more than 40 squadrons of P-40 fighters based around the world.

The P-40 was comparatively cheap.  By 1943, it cost 15 percent less than the newer model P-51 Mustang, and you could buy two P-40s for every P-38 or P-47 (also follow-on models) the service acquired.    Unfortunately, with the rapid advances in fighter technology in the late 1930s, the P-40 was already outdated by the time the U.S. declared war on Japan. By 1943, with even the best-trained pilots in the world, pitting the P-40 against German Messerschmitts would have been virtual suicide – not just for the P-40 pilots, but for the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews they were tasked to protect.

The Air Corps continued to buy the P-40 as an offering to allies through the lend-lease program, but wisely refitted its front-line units with P-51s, P-47s and P-38s as fast as they were available. Over time, the fighter inventory went from nearly 100 percent P-40s to a ratio of 80-20, then 50-50 and, on down.  As the P-40 was removed from service and the percentage of leading-edge fighters grew, the bombers started getting the top cover they needed and engagement ratios became more and more favorable for the U.S.

It is hard to imagine Gen. Hap Arnold, the commander of the Air Corps, suggesting that the service slow acquisition of the most dominant fighter of the war, the P-51, by fielding new, less expensive, P-40s for U.S. pilots to fight (and die) in, in the pursuit of a balanced mix.

Yet that is exactly what congressional and senior defense leaders are proposing today, on the mistaken belief they’ll be saving money.

In Fiscal Year 2022 a fully combat-capable F-35A will cost $77.9 million but, a 4th generation baseline F-15EX will cost $87.7 million.  The baseline F-15EX has no targeting pod and no electronic self-defense systems, In other words, it’s incapable of flying any combat missions. When you add in the additional systems and equipment required to make it combat capable, an F-15EX will cost $102 million—30 percent more than a stealth fighter able to fight in all combat environments. The F-35A’s cost per flying hour is almost a wash with that of the F-15EX, and fighter pilots who have flown the F-35s love them.

The Air Force Chief of Staff and others argue there are places in the world where you could save money by flying less capable fighters. So what? We have plenty of jets that can fill that role now. Adding new, more expensive, fourth-generation fighters to their numbers to “maintain a balance” would make even less sense than it would have in 1943.

Ongoing Russian or Chinese programs that sell or “loan” high-end surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) to any nation willing to buy them makes fourth-generation fighter employment untenable.  The Russians have already done that in Syria, and those incredibly capable SAMs are proliferating globally.

Using an F-15EX, a fighter designed in the 1970s, in a hot, high-threat environment today would be suicide—not just for the F-15EX crews, but for the combatants relying on those jets to come through.

The Air Force doesn’t need another study to figure that out. And with peer states growing bolder and more capable by the day, it cannot afford to delay the growth and refitting of its fleet of fighters with the most viable weapons system available in the world today: the F-35A.

Boeing F-15EX

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

Boeing F-15EX

Boeing F-15EX. Artist Image from Boeing.

F-15EX

Two Boeing F-15EX fighters armed with air-to-air missiles. Image Credit: Boeing.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons Instructor Course with more than 3,300 hours in the F-16C and a veteran of three combat operations, John “JV” Venable is a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Written By

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons Instructor Course with more than 3,300 hours in the F-16C and a veteran of three combat operations, John “JV” Venable is a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Talltexan

    September 25, 2021 at 10:45 am

    John Venable…..great article especially for a novice airplane buff and X-Intelligence Analyst. The argument you speak of makes total sense to me. The new efforts to renew the SR-71, I read about as well, into a pilot-less SR-72 (drone mode) is not that far beyond my tax-payer comprehension. Has to be the ultimate element of surprise.

    Oh yes…by the way, and for jovial conversation…the second artist rendition of the F-15EX – does not climb out under full afterburners with the flaps showing to be set at least 15 deg. The pilots Op’s officer would ground that guy for burning too much fuel.

    Hope you don’t mind…I copied the photos for my wallpaper. If I wrong, just reply on here and I will delete them. Awesome photos though…! Good Job John…!!

  2. Mike

    September 26, 2021 at 3:41 am

    Your wrong about the self defense warfare electronics. It has the passive eagle self defense. Probably one of the best systems out there. It can carry far more weapons and is certified to carry almost every weapon in the Air Force inventory. It’s faster, it’s got more range and it’s modern. On top of that it’s not replacing the f-35 it’s working with it. It could be a middle truck even seeing how it could have up to 12 missiles. It’s a tool to help the F-35. Not replace it

  3. Gary Newman

    September 26, 2021 at 11:00 am

    John
    Thanks you for your service first of all but I couldn’t disagree with you more. You sound like an academy poly sci major and many of your statements are uninformed and just plain ( plane) wrong.

    As an engineer with two degrees and a Masters from Wash U ( as well as being a pilot for 30 yrs), I built the F-15E and also worked for Lockheed for 18 yrs on the F-16 and C-130 J programs including several successful sales campaigns.

    Let’s start with your faulty analysis and criticism of the F-15. As a lawn dart ( Viper) driver some of this is expected.
    1. During Dessert Storm the F-15 shot down 33 of 36 aircraft . The F-16 “ Zero”! Against front line Russian fighters like the MiG -29, AAA, and SAM’s. It’s kill ratio is 100+ to 0 ( never shot down!)
    2. The F-15 EX is not your fathers F-15 from the 70’s. Yes they look similar, so does a Porsche 911 built in the 70’s and and a 2021 GS3.
    • The EX has a 20k hr tested airframe vs the original 8K one. You didn’t mention that the USAF had to retire early, several hundred Blk 5,10,15 F-16’s at 5K hrs because they couldn’t make their design life of 8K hrs. They are now QF-16 targets being shot down over the Gulf of Mexico for training purposes out of Tyndall.

    The USAF had to develop an expensive fix called “ Falcon up then Falcon star” structural upgrade kit that had to be installed on 1000 F-16’s worldwide to keep them flying( at taxpayer expense) The extensive use of titanium in the F-15 Ctr and aft fuselage gives it its 20k hr life span- something the F-35 will never have
    • The EX has an AESA ( Electronic scanned array radar) with greater range, reliability and acuity than the old mech one ( just like the F-35,F-22, and now F-16 and F-18 have. The EX also has a new cockpit with same 20” wide area display as the F-35.

    • EX has new fly by wire flight controls and two new outboard pylons ( thanks to Saudi NRE $) it also has EPAWS as already pointed out that you failed to mention and probably know nothing about?

    • your price quoted for the F-35 doesn’t include the engine! As the engines are procured with Pratt & Whitney on a separate USG contract. You failed to point out this basic fact and basic contract construct?

    • there are ~ 400 early model F-35’s built that are not combat ready and will need many mods ( like the early F-16’s MLU avionics and Falcon star mentioned) as well as the Blk 4 software upgrade ( delayed again by LM) just to make the gun work . As John McCain famously said “ this is procurement malpractice by the Pentagon”

    • finally as you should know as a USAF veteran the USAF has hundreds of C Model F-15’s built in the 80’s with with no fly by wire , no AESA radar, no 32K thrust GE110 engines, no EPAWS electronics. They were supposed to be replaced with F-22’s, another LM failure stopped at 187 ac in 2011 by then Sec Def Gates. In hindsight a bad decision given current Russian/ Chinese 5th Gen programs.

    So the F-15EX is a good deal for the taxpayer and the USAF. It flys faster, higher, carries way more, flys farther than any F-35 ever will. And Let’s not forget the war-gamer comments from a few yrs ago “ against the Russian SU-27 it got clubbed like a baby seal”. It also got beat by an old F-16 Blk 40 ( built in late 80’s) with two under wing tanks even more recently.

    The F-35 is 10 yrs late and “Billions” with a B over budget – just like the “ canceled” F-22 was. And we have hundreds of F-35’s that will cost billions to fix to be operationally meaningful. The US Navy is not buying into the F-35 BS either and developing their own F-XX 6th Gen fighter. They have to buy a few for political and program of record purposes but are already reducing #’s

    “ Now you know the rest of the story”
    ~Paul Harvey

  4. Ken Reese

    September 26, 2021 at 11:12 am

    I dont have a dog in the F-15/ F-35 discussion but I have to take issue with your historical example.

    The P-40 was designed from the get go to to be a low to mid altitude air superiorty fighter and in that roll it was one of the best planes in the early mid war. In north africa it gave as well as it got vs the germans and in asia it was flat out superior to what the japanese had. In both cases the intial set backs had more to do with green allied aircrews being sent against veterns.

    1943 was the high point of what by then was an ancient design but, it was succcesful in air combat right up until 1945.

    All of the prewar designs
    like the Wildcat, Me109 and Hurricaine started maxing out by midwar. Thats not suprising when you look at an aircraft like the P-40 which was essentially designed in 1935 (its complicated). Compare that too..

    The P-47 was built from the ground up to be a high altitude fighter, I mean its litterly a flying aircompressor, seriously look at a cross section most of the plane is ductwork.

    The P-51 design started in 1940 and ultimate successeful becuase it intergrated cutting edge technology from 2 nations.

    The Me109 like the P-40 it was a great prewar design, unlike the P-40 the germans couldnt afford to shift its production to more modern designs. They didnt fly the me109 in 1944 becuase they wanted to, they flew it becuase they had to.

    It doesnt do your analysis of the F-15 any service when your take on the P-40 is highly flawed. At best you are uncriticly repeating old disproven memes and at worse you have a flawed understanding of historical air operations. We didnt use the P-51 to escort bombers high over Europe becuase the P-40 sucked, we used P-51s for that missiin becuase thats what they were concived, designed and built to do.

  5. Charles W Baughman

    September 26, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    Everyone lavished praise on the F-35. In its stealthy mode, it carries few missiles. It’s range isn’t that good. It’s not fast. AND, our adversaries are in the process of nullifying stealth through advanced radars. IT is the P-40.

  6. Jack

    September 26, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    Or just make more F-22’s– which are superior in nearly every metric to both the F-35A and F-15X.

    Ignoring that option is just ignorant.

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