The United States is ordering fewer of the F-15EX fighters than initially planned. And the F-15EX, even though it builds on a platform with a great combat record, will not be stealthy.
So that raises the question – could it be a positive factor against China’s air force or be a liability?
F-15EX: Not a “First Day” Fighter
The F-15EX would probably not be the fighter that the U.S. Air Force would use on the first day of the war (if it ever happened). That job would go to stealthy F-35s and F-22s. But if suppression of enemy air defenses is assured and the Americans create air superiority, then the F-15EX would be able to earn its wings in combat.
So, it is not a “Day One” aircraft – more like a “Day Three” option. That is still a good development for the Air Force to have such a proven airframe taking the fight to the enemy.
More Advantageous Against the Chinese J-10 or J-11
The F-15EX should fly well in a match ups with Chinese fourth generation fighters such as the J-10C or J-11B models. The F-15EX is a multi-role fighter that has fly-by-wire controls, a stronger airframe, more room for weapons, and better electronic warfare capabilities.
The F-15EX airframe will have a long service life – at around 20,000 flight hours – about double that of the F-15C. It has a 28 percent larger payload than previous F-15 versions. Current F-15 pilots will feel right at home. And the existing production lines can be utilized to easily build more F-15EXs. The F-15EX is easily upgraded with its “open mission system.” The computer and avionics software can be updated regularly.
Pilots Are Ready to Fly It
The F-15EX made its first flight in early 2021. Two went to testing at Eglin Air Force Base later that year. Air National Guard pilots getting the first crack at flying the F-15EX are excited. Colonel Jeff Edwards, commander of the 173rd Air Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, said flying the F-15EX is “awesome,” and he is looking forward to training his pilots on the F-15EX.
Not the Go-to Plane Against the Stealth J-20
The F-15EX does have a problem. China is building more and more of its J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighters. They are now located in all Chinese regional commands in the country to fully staff the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF). The PLAAF is aware that the United States will use F-35s and F-22s in an early phase of an air battle. But it likely does not have a clear picture of how the F-15EX will perform in a dogfight.
Japan Is Used to Flying the F-15 Airframe
Japan’s air self-defense force has flown F-15Js for years. Japan is concerned when China makes aerial incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zones when Chinese fighters are flying close to Japanese islands including Okinawa in the East China Sea.
Japan will have to use their F-15Js to protect sovereign territory. Japan would love to have the newer F-15EX to perform these defensive missions, but so far, the F-15EX program has been looking at a potential sale to India. But Japan could join that country as an interested party too.
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Let the F-15EX Report for Duty in East Asia
The F-15EX thus has a future role to play in the South and East China Sea in the Indo-Pacific region. It should be able to outfly the J-10 and J-11, and it may have trouble against the J-20, but that is where the F-35 and F-22 come in.
The question will be air suppression of enemy defenses after the first day of conflict. The United States will also have three different bombers firing stand-off missiles to eliminate China’s air defense networks comprised of radars and surface-to-air missiles, not to mention attempting to destroy Chinese fighters on the ground.
The F-15EX is without stealth capabilities, but a fast multi-role fighter with significant amounts of weapons will be welcome in the Indo-Pacific, and it will give the PLAAF another headache as China battle planners assess their chances against the United States.
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.