F-15EX – Cancelled? – The F-15 Eagle was designed in the 1970s, without “a pound for air-to-ground,” meaning the plane was built strictly for air superiority. Accordingly, the original F-15 was excellent at engaging other airborne targets, or dogfighting – the jet was perhaps the preeminent fourth-generation air-to-air fighter – but lacked systems or capabilities to engage on the ground targets. In the 1980s, the F-15E variant was built to provide the F-15 platform with an air-to-ground option. The F-15E retained the original Eagle’s air-to-air abilities, while adding an air-to-ground mode, hence broadening the spectrum of mission profiles that the jet could conduct.
F-15EX: A Program In Peril?
Now, a new variant, known as the F-15EX is ready for production, according to Boeing. But how many will the Air Force actually order and is the program in trouble?
The F-15EX first flew in February 2021. In March of the same year, Boeing delivered the first F-15EX to the US Air Force. The delivery was significant, marking the first USAF in nearly two decades. The F-15EX had been developed surreptitiously after the USAF made a very discreet inquiry to Boeing about creating an airframe meeting certain requirements. Namely, the USAF wanted a new jet that was cheap to operate, cheap to acquire, low-risk, and that would not disrupt the procurement of the F-35. Boeing’s solution: an update to the F-15 Eagle. The decision could be considered counterintuitive; the USAF had not accepted delivery of a fourth-generation fighter since 2001.
Unlike every other fighter jet delivered to the USAF since 2001, the F-15EX is not stealth-equipped. Rather, the plane has the same high-visibility characteristics as the preceding F-15 variants. Stealth aside, the new F-15 does have a litany of improvements.
“Configuration is impressive as it includes a flat-panel glass cockpit, JHMCS II helmet-mounted (HMD), revised internal wing structure, fly-by-wire controls, APG-82 AESA radar, activation of outer wing stations one and nine, advanced mission computer, low-profile heads-up display, updated radio and satellite communications, the highly advanced Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance suite, Legion Pod-mounted infrared search and track system (IRST) and the list goes on,” the War Zone reported.
One of the most impressive updates to the F-15EX is the extended service life. Remarkably, the F-15EX is built to last for 20,000 hours of service. To put that number in perspective, the brand-new Block III F-18 Super Hornet has a 10,000-hour service life (and the Block II Super Hornet had just a 6,000-hour service life). Given the potentially generation-spanning service life, the F-15EX has the legs to remain active with the USAF for decades to come. That is if the USAF wants the new jet at all.
Suddenly, the USAF is understood to be on the verge of potentially cancelling their F-15EX procurement, scaling back their order. Critics are calling the jet too expensive and outdated. John Venable, a Heritage Foundation scholar speaking to outlet Defence One, believes modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems are too sophisticated for the non-stealth F-15EX, meaning the jet will be limited to stateside defence patrols. However, the F-15EX carries up to 22 air-to-air missiles at a time – complete overkill for domestic defence.
Other scholars agree. “The F-15EX is a waste of the Air Force’s money,” explained Harry J Kazianis, President and CEO of the Rogue States Project and a prominent defence expert, in an interview with 19FortyFive. “Why would we spend billions on a fighter that isn’t stealth like the F-35 and would get blown to bits by Russia and China in a war if we tried to enter their air space protected by defences like the S-400? That would be sending a U.S. Air Force pilot to his or her death.”
The budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 suggests that the F-15EX program may indeed be in trouble; funds were set aside for just 18 aircraft. The original plan to replace existing F-15C and D variants with the new EX seems to be on hold. The USAF is still determining where in their force structure, where between stealthy, versatile F-35s and aging, less expensive, fourth-generation workhorses, an updated F-15 would fit in.