The U.S. Air Force is disappointed. A House subcommittee is pumping the brakes on an F-15EX fighter buy – an acquisition that is designed to replace the much older F-15 C/Ds. The Air Force wants 24 F-15EXs for FY23 and the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on June 14 has recommended only a purchase of 18. The F-15EX Eagle II is a non-stealthy fourth generation-plus fighter. The older F-15s have been in service for more than 45 years.
This News Is Not Good
This is a bitter pill to swallow for the Air Force as at one time the service branch expected it would get 144 F-15EXs and then it cut the ask down to 80. The Air Force also pondered whether the older F-15s could be replaced by drones or not backfilled at all. The Pentagon would invest $1.9 billion for the 18 F-35Xs if the House Appropriations Committee has its way. The committee has recommended a total defense expenditure for the Pentagon of $761.7 billion which is an increase of $33.2 billion from FY22. Some lawmakers are wondering if this increase will keep up with inflation.
There Is Much to Like About the F-15EX
The F-15EX is expected to fly 20,000 hours in its lifetime compared to 8,000 hours for the F-35. The F-15EX is chock full of technological goodies that arguably makes it the best fourth-generation fighter in the world. It has a helmet-mounted display for the pilot, fly-by-wire controls, a better mission computer, upgraded communications systems, and a new Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System that is designed to improve situational awareness and give the F-15EX better electronic countermeasures.
Strong Ordnance Capacity
The F-15EX also has enviable capabilities for carrying a diverse range of munitions including 22 air-to-air missiles when it wants to intercept and destroy enemy fighters. Plus, it can employ 28 Small Diameter Bombs or seven 2,000-pound bombs for ground attack missions.
Subject to the Whims of Congress
It may be premature to speculate about one House panel that is cutting the F-15EX. The appropriation measure still must pass the Senate and its appropriation process, this has to be a disappointment for the Air Force and especially to Boeing. The older F-15s need to be replaced. With the elongated service life of the F-15EX, it could fly for many years.
At Least One Critic of the F-15EX
John Venable, at the Washington, DC think tank Heritage Foundation is bearish on the F-15EX. He said it is more expensive than the F-35. Venable believes the F-15EX is based on an older airframe that is not survivable. Plus, the F-15EX, according to Venable, will be outclassed by the S-400 Surface-to-air missiles system that Russia and China field.
Harry J. Kazianis, President and CEO of the Rogue State Project, agrees with Venable. In an interview with 19FortyFive, he called the F-15EX “[A] relic of the 1980s and a waste of money in an era when stealth is everything in a world of great power competition. While I will admit this fighter looks tempting if sent to fight in non-contested, non-A2/AD environments, if a single dollar is diverted from the F-35 program to this then is a major mistake.”
What Does the Future Hold on Capitol Hill?
This is a tough decision for lawmakers. You can see that the F-15EX has pluses and minuses. Its capabilities are strong, but the downsides are many. Would it get wiped out by newer SAM systems and enemy stealth fighters? Or could it fly with the F-35 and receive targeting data as the Lightning II assumes its “quarterback in the sky” role?
It appears the program is suffering due to the naysayers in Congress and some former pilots who think the F-15EX is a waste. Eighteen new fighters are not enough to replace the F-15C/Ds. It may just be better, the critics say, to use the money saved on the F-15EX and buy more F-35s. The House Appropriations Committee said that it will recommend the purchase of 61 F-35s for $7.2 billion. Taking away the $1.9 billion for the F-15EX and re-programming those funds would allow the Pentagon to get more stealth fighters. This may be where Congress is heading in future years, to stop buying the F-15EX altogether.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.