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F-15EX: The Air Force’s Great Fighter Jet Mistake?

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)
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)

Would an ability to fire hypersonic weapons, detect long-range threats with advanced radar, operate with unprecedented computer processing speed, and carry a large weapons payload enable the new Air Force F-15EX aircraft to compensate for its lack of stealth in a major high-end fight? 

The F-15EX: No Stealth, No Problem?

This seems to be the central question of great relevance to the Air Force’s arriving F-15EX, a “4th-generation plus” type of modified aircraft engineered with a wide range of potentially paradigm-changing upgrades and enhancements. 

The F-15 EX can, for example, enter combat with a massive and highly lethal payload, something which might allow the aircraft to function as a follow-on “weapons truck” once forward operating, stealthy 5th-gen aircraft have established air superiority.

In fact, Air Force officials cited in a recent article in the EurAsian Times, say the new variant of the F-15EX is now breaking weapons payload and delivery records by demonstrating an ability to operate with 12 air-to-air missiles. The news report says the F-15EX can ultimately carry 13.6 tons of payload. 

With this kind of weapons-carrying capacity,  the F-15EX could function in close coordination with 5th-generation counterparts and operate as a critical phase or “follow-on” attack platform able to inflict devastation upon enemy targets. 

Does the Air Force Need the F-15EX? 

However, does the Air Force need a massively upgraded, yet expensive F-15EX to accomplish this, should it primarily prove useful in a permissive environment where air superiority is established? 

Perhaps not. Should air supremacy be established, then it seems most if not all 4th-generation aircraft or even larger platforms such as the B-52 might prove sufficient. 

Given this, could the F-15EX aircraft be an expensive, combat-capable jet without a clear mission? Potentially, as many of the missions for which the F-15EX might be best well suited could also be performed by much less-expansive or combat-capable aircraft such as F-16s, F-18s, or larger bombers. 

At the same time, should there be a need to destroy an adversary with a fleet of primarily 4th-generation aircraft, then the F-15 EXs enhanced radar, targeting, computing and weapons capacity could prove extremely impactful. After all, the Russians are not believed to be operating substantial numbers of 5th-generation Su-57s, and a “4th-generation plus” F-15EX might prove extremely effective in an air-engagement with Russia given that the majority of the Russian air fleet remains 4th-generation fighters.

China likely involves a similar dynamic, however, the PLA Air Force is believed to operate impactful numbers of J-20s. At the same time, although the J-20 is hyped by China as a high-capable 5th-generation stealth fighter, it is by no means certain that it would instantly or always prevail in an engagement with an F-15EX. 

F-15EX vs. Air Defenses 

Regardless of what an F-15 EX might face in the air, it would likely have a lot of trouble operating against advanced Russian and Chinese air defense systems increasingly able to detect aircraft with greater precision at much longer ranges.

Also, using digital processing and networking technologies, advanced air defenses such as the Russian-built S-400s are able to pass along threat track data and anticipate where an aircraft may be for targeting missions. 

Weighing these factors, many might wonder if the Air Force’s rationale for acquiring F-15EX airplanes is sufficiently well-placed in light of today’s threat environment. 

Author Expertise and Biography

Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Written By

Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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