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F-15EX: Why Buy This ‘Old’ Fighter Instead of More F-35s?

F-15EX
Image Credit: Boeing.

While China and Russia are steadily increasing their stealth fighter jet fleets, the U.S. Air Force is spending billions to buy the F-15EX, a new version of a very old aircraft.

For the past few years, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been at the center of the Pentagon’s attention—and rightly so, considering the program currently costs almost two trillion dollars. But as ink is being spilled on the pros and cons of America’s most advanced 5th generation fighter aircraft, the Air Force is adding the 4th generation F-15EX to its fleet.

F-15EX: A Formidable Air Superiority Jet

The F-15EX is an improved version of the most effective air superiority fighter in the skies today. The older versions of the F-15 have an impressive kill ratio of 104-0, with the Israeli Air Force claiming most of those kills.

For decades now, the F-15 has served as the backbone of the Air Force’s air superiority fleet. The first aircraft entered service back in 1974 but has received several updates over the years, with the most significant the F-15E Strike Eagle version that added an additional seat behind the pilot for a weapon systems officer. As of 2021, the Air Force is operating about 450 F-15s, the last one of which was ordered 20 years ago in 2001.

However, the F-15 kept developing during this time as foreign nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, poured money into its development and continued to buy it. As a result, the new version the Air Force is buying comes with several improvements over the existing ones.

The F-15EX has an updated cockpit system, improved electronic warfare capabilities—designed to make it more survivable in a 5th generation battlespace—data fusion capabilities, better engines that make it the fastest fighter jet in America’s arsenal, plus the ability to pack almost 30,000 lbs of munitions. The aircraft has an operating ceiling of 70,000 feet, can reach speeds of up to 2.5 Mach, and has an effective range of more than 1260 miles.

The Air Force has signed a contract with Boeing for 144 F-15EX aircraft to replace the old F-15C. The decision to purchase the improved version of the F-15 goes contrary to the Air Force’s previous plan to only buy 5th generation stealth aircraft for its future fleet.

Why the F-15EX?

Many people will definitely ask why the Air Force is willing to pay $23 billion for an old, new aircraft when it has the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II stealth fighter jets in its arsenal?

The simplest answer is money. The improved version of an almost 50-years-old aircraft is cheaper than the 5th generation F-35, which currently has a price tag of approximately $1.7 trillion for the whole program, including operations and maintenance. Although the Air Force is spending about $90 million per F-15EX, while an F-35 now costs approximately $80 million per aircraft, the older aircraft will prove more economical on the long term.

For example, Boeing and the Air Force expect the F-15EX to last for 20,000 hours, while an F-35 is expected to fly for about 8,000 hours. So, one could argue that one F-15EX equals about three F-35As in price, though not in capabilities.

Boeing F-15EX

F-15 X (Image: Boeing)

F-15EX Screenshot from Boeing Video

F-15EX Screenshot from Boeing Video

One of the great things about the F-15EX is the convenience it brings with it. Using approximately 70 percent of the same parts as the existing versions of the F-15, the new iteration will be very easy to introduce to the Air Force and will require months if not weeks for squadrons flying it to be combat-ready as opposed to years and months if it were a completely new platform. The commonality in parts and operation will also make training and maintenance that much easier.

The Pentagon has repeatedly emphasized that the F-15EX isn’t competing with the F-35. Rather, the two aircraft are intended to complement one another to maximize the effectiveness of both. The F-35 has the stealth and fusion sensor capabilities to remain undetected, observe the battlefield, and feed other aircraft and units with targets and intelligence.

1945’s New Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. ZivBnd

    November 9, 2021 at 8:22 am

    I doubt that any of the F-35 A’s built after LRIP-5 or 6 will be retired after just 8,000 hours. (The B is a mess and the early ones may be retired after less than 8,000 hours.)
    In point of fact the airframe for the F-35A (airframe AJ-1) has been tested to 24,000 hours and many of the post LRIP-6 A models may end up serving for much longer than 8,000 hours, probably with some form of a SLEP. The C is doing well on the second life testing but the last I heard its test airframe had completed the 16,000 hour mark of testing but hadn’t reached 24,000 hours yet. Reaching 24k hours doesn’t mean that most of the aircraft will last that long in service but it does mean that 8,000 hours isn’t the limit on their life in the real world.

  2. Cenebar

    November 9, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    The reasons are obvious as to the need for the F-15EX. The F-15EX has performance ratings and usage that the F-35 cannot match with the F-35’s stealth skin and one engine and low Mach 1.6 speed that can’t be sustained for longer than 60-90 seconds. When the F-15EX takes off, the USAF can bet that all systems will work. Would you always want a finicky Space Shuttle spaceplane to get into orbit and lots of scrubbed countdowns, or a SpaceX Falcon Nine old-idea capsule that doesn’t have many scrubbed countdowns?

    If you need to drive daily, one doesn’t need to take out the fancy flashy Ferrari and Lamborghini when the compact car can do it just as well and cheaply. That is the reasoning behind the F-15EX, and sometimes two seats are better than one. The USAF definitely has to have a working, viable, and ready two-seater just like the F-18F is for the US Navy.

    Sometimes the USAF needs a heavy-duty fighter to get into the air ASAP and the F-15EX and the “F-16 Replacement” are them. The USAF doesn’t always need a “Hangar Queen” such as the F-22, F-35, and NGAD to get airborne when a conventional fast attack fighter will do. I too am for the semi-stealthy “F-16 Replacement” program because the USAF will always need more fighters than anyone else, and the US excels in making fighter aircraft.

  3. Cerebus

    November 9, 2021 at 7:20 pm

    “While China and Russia are steadily increasing their stealth fighter jet fleets”

    Can we stop already? Neither China nor Russia have a 5th Gen stealth aircraft. You only have to look at the J 20 and SU 57 and its readily apparent.

  4. ZivBnd

    November 9, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    I don’t think I have ever seen a report regarding how fast, and for how long, an F-15E can fly with external stores/while carrying AAMs. The F-35A can fly at Mach 1.6 until its fuel level causes it to return to base while carrying 4 AAMs.
    I am not sure that the F-15E can do the same for more than 10 or 20 minutes. It may be able to exceed Mach 1.6 for a very short time while carrying external stores, but it probably can’t do so for long.
    If you believe the F-15E or EX can fly for an extended period while carrying external stores/AAMs, show me the link.

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