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F-15EX vs. F-35 Stealth Fighter: What Is the Difference? 

The F-35 and F-15EX are so different in so many respects that it might not even make sense to compare them. Yet, the two aircraft have been analyzed in relation to one another for years.

F-15EX image provided by Boeing.
F-15EX image provided by Boeing.

The F-35 and F-15EX are so different in so many respects that comparing them might not make sense.

Yet, the two aircraft have been analyzed in relation to one another for years, given the ongoing debates about whether it makes sense to add a 4th-generation “plus” plane in more significant numbers and reduce the size of the F-35 buy. 

F-15EX vs. F-35

Like the F-35, the F-15EX does have cutting edge and highly sensitive Advanced Electronically Scanned Array radar technology as well as advanced high-speed computing.

However, the aircraft is extremely different and less capable than an F-35 in a number of key respects. 

Perhaps of greatest significance, the F-15EX is not stealthy.  Lack of stealth is likely to prove extremely problematic in high-threat enemy territory. The most advanced and rapidly emerging Russian and Chinese-built air defenses are now much more likely to operate with an ability to detect even stealth aircraft to some degree.

This an emerging reality that continues to present something of a predicament for U.S.weapons developers seeking to preserve air supremacy against major power rivals. Russian media claims that its upgraded S-400 and S-500 air defense systems can detect and destroy stealth aircraft, may have yet to be verified in some measurable way, and there is, of course, a massive margin of difference between merely “detecting” something in some capacity and actually being able to shoot it down.

Chinese HQ-9 air defenses, reported to have appeared in areas around the South China Sea, are a fast-growing and serious threat as well.“The HQ-9 is capable of engaging multiple aircraft, including combat aircraft. It resembles the Russian S-300 system but China is assessed to have developed variants of the system with a longer range, potentially up to 230 kilometers,” a DW report writes.

A Jet Without a Mission? 

Considering these factors, some are likely to wonder if the F-15EX is an aircraft without a clearly defined mission.

Does the aircraft linger in a certain kind of liminal uncertainty, meaning that it might be overqualified for most uncontested environments yet insufficient to counter the highest threat or most contested environments, such as those containing Russian or Chinese air defenses?

The F-15EX is, at least in terms of its external configuration, modeled upon 1980s engineering, yet it does contain quantum-like improvements in computing, radar range and sensitivity, avionics, sensing and weaponry.

The Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-15EX Eagle II, was revealed and named during a ceremony, April 7, 2021, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The aircraft will be the first Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end, through combined developmental and operational tests. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)

However, it simply is not stealthy – and that fact simply won’t change.

Its construction, configuration, coating, and external shape do not resemble the stealthy exterior of an F-22 or F-35, and it does not appear to have an internal weapons bay. As a 4th-Gen 1980s airframe, the F-15EX is not as flat, sloped, or rounded as a fifth-generation plane and is most likely not built with a mind to seams, bolts, and other attachments specific to procedures needed to construct a stealth aircraft.

The F-15EX also has a protruding cockpit, much like the original variants, and some sharp edges, likely to generate a stronger radar return signal.

An F-35A Lightning II from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. Aircrews routinely fly missions aimed at sharpening the necessary skills needed to respond to emerging situations at a moment’s notice. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)

Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive 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.

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.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Marco

    September 20, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    The author misses, or just not present, an important point. The F-15EX is not designed to be an initial penetrator against a peer or near peer adversary. In the opening days of the conflict, F-22s do the heavy lifting of combatting the enemy’s air assets. The F-35s also support and/or engage in the counter air fight while prosecuting strikes against the enemy’s anti-air detection systems. Once those missions are significantly accomplished, very fast and very heavily laden F-15EX bomb trucks come in and rain down havoc. Furthermore, if the adversary is less than near peer, the F-15 platform is more than capable of handling any 4th Gen aircraft and the two supposed 5th Gen Russian and Chinese aircraft. Finally, the US Military no longer fights frame vs frame. We fight using a system of systems with multiple redundancies built in. An F-15EX will not be going into battle alone.

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