You ever wonder why the U.S. Air Force is building a non-stealth fighter in the age of fifth-generation and even sixth-generation warplanes?
One reason is to give the active duty Air Force and the Air National Guard a new fighter to replace older 1980s-era F-15Cs. The F-15EX Eagle II is supposed to have a longer service life. The F-15EX will help plus up the numbers of the Air Force fighter fleet in addition to existing and new F-35s. The Air Force also believes the F-15EX will cost less per hour to operate than the F-35 and F-22.
Creating Competitions for the Aerospace Industry
One overlooked aspect of the F-15EX is what it adds to the U.S. defense industrial base. After the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program could be closed down someday as no new Super Hornets were requested by the navy in recent budgets, the Boeing factory in St. Louis, Missouri will only be making (aside from F-15EXs) the T-7 Red Hawk trainer. This means that the only other fighter being produced would be by the Lockheed Martin assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas. It is considered healthier for the aerospace industry and the Air Force as a whole to have at least three different fighter programs operating at the same time. This promotes competition and serves to create and protect existing jobs. As a DOD official said in an October report to Congress on the F-15EX, “It is good to have multiple providers in the tactical aircraft portfolio.”
But Boeing Still Has Some Orders for the Super Hornet
To be sure, Boeing could still be busy with the Super Hornet as Congress has added the fighter to its National Defense Authorization Act regularly, even though the navy says no. But this is not many Super Hornets – only a total of 24 over the last two years. That still means the United States is not producing a bevy of diverse fighters.
Air Guard Will Take Those Lightning IIs
The Air National Guard will receive the first F-15EX fighters. The first F-15EX squadron will stand up at Portland Air National Guard Base in Oregon in 2023. The Air Force in totality is aiming for 80 F-15EXs in the coming years if Congress approves, it originally wanted 144 to replace the F-15C, but the Biden administration cut that request. The Air Force received its first F-15EX in 2021 and the White House’s budget proposal for FY23 asked for $2.6 billion to buy 24 of the Eagle IIs.
F-15EX In Combination with the F-35
The F-15EX is not supposed to compete with the F-35, it is supposed to complement it. It also makes sense to have the newer F-15EX in the reserve Air Force component rather than depending on the older F-15C that Air Guard pilots are forced to fly. But there is still that question of stealth and survivability.
Aerial Order of Battle
The F-15EX would likely not be flown on the first day of combat – that mission would fall to the F-22 and F-35. If the United States could create air dominance in ensuing days of conflict then the F-15EX could swoop in for aerial and ground target kills. This has detractors asking what is the point of building non-stealthy jets that do not suppress enemy air defenses on Day One?
The Air Force would say that the F-15EX will be cheaper to fly and maintain. Air guard pilots would have a new fighter, while Congressional members could point to more jobs in their district. However, domestic economic development should not drive Air Force tactics, operations, and strategy, critics would note.
Like it or not, the F-15EX is coming and time will tell if this has been a good decision. It could fly with F-35s and F-22s on a regular basis in offensive roles or act as more of a defensive fighter to protect the homeland. The Air Force will have to decide on its future fighter mix soon as China continues to build more stealth J-20 Mighty Dragons that now are based throughout the country. The air branch will have to decide if a combination of fourth and fifth generation fighters is the preferred scenario for future aerial combat or if the F-15EX should stay in the background and engage in conflict only when air dominance has been achieved in later stages of warfare.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.