The Air Force needs to “cancel” and eliminate the new-build F-15EX Eagle II aircraft, according to a report from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The Eagle II is “wrapped in a 50-yr old design that cannot enter contested airspace,” according to the study titled The Future Fighter Force Our Nation Requires: Building a Bridge. The study maintains that the cost and expenditure of resources is too much given the limited mission scope the aircraft would be capable of performing. The study says the Eagle II program “damages” the Air Force’s overall modernization effort.
“The Air Force must come to terms with the deleterious impact that acquiring the ‘new-old’ F-15EX will have on the service’s ability to transform its fighter force into one that is relevant to peer conflicts,” according to the study. While the Eagle II introduces a series of advanced technologies and innovations to include major improvements in computing, radar range, sensitivity, avionics sensors and weaponry, it suffers from the indisputable and immutable reality that it is just not “stealthy.” The Eagle II will have little to no chance of surviving against Russian and Chinese air defenses because “stealth is the cost of entry into any modern battlespace,” according to the study.
Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and Russian Prometey air defenses are known to operate with much more precise and sensitive radar systems. They can network with high-speed digital computing and potentially be able to detect stealthy aircraft to a limited degree. While this does not mean air defense systems could succeed in targeting or hitting a fifth-generation stealth fighter, it might mean that a fourth-generation, non-stealthy airframes like the Eagle II would essentially be useless against them.
As a fourth-generation 1980s airframe, the Eagle II, is not as flat, sloped or rounded as a fifth-generation plane. Also, it was unlikely to be built with special attention focused on its seams, bolts and other attachments—the minute details necessary for the construction of stealth aircraft. Also, the Eagle II has a protruding cockpit and some sharp edges that are likely to generate a stronger radar return signal. This leads a person to wonder: could the Eagle II be an expensive upgraded aircraft without an actual mission?
Some people have suggested the Eagle II might support F-35 jets by bringing a large payload of weapons to support the fight. But right now, it seems the aircraft might be stuck in a zone of meaninglessness. Why? It may be far too expensive and advanced for certain missions wherein air supremacy is already established yet ill-equipped to help the Air Force achieve air superiority against a technologically sophisticated rival. The Eagle II may exist in something of a liminal zone, meaning it has no suitable mission sufficient to justify the expense associated with it.
“New-builds of older designs like the F-15EX will find themselves relegated to limited defensive roles in an era where the Air Force fighter inventory is too small to pursue a tiered force design,” according to the study. “The budget planned for F-15EX should instead be used to increase F-35 production and for the development of a new, stealthy fighter program.”
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Air Force