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F-35 Victory? Boeing's F-15EX Eagle Fighters Just Hit a Big Snag

June 4, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Air ForceF-15MilitaryTechnologyWorldBoeingF-15EX

F-35 Victory? Boeing's F-15EX Eagle Fighters Just Hit a Big Snag

“Details about exactly what version of the plane the Air Force would buy remain murky, pending negotiations with Boeing,” Air Force magazine explained. “House authorizers want a clearer picture before they commit to spending the full amount.”

House authorizers are trying to hang conditions on the U.S. Air Force’s request to buy new F-15EX Eagle fighters from Boeing to complement Lockheed Martin-made F-35 stealth fighters.

A subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee wants to limit the Air Force’s 2020 purchase of F-15EXs to just two copies, staffers told reporters on June 3, 2019. The Air Force asked to buy eight of the planes for around $1 billion.

The subcommittee won’t approve further purchases until the Air Force submits an acquisition strategy outlining how it would buy and field all 144 F-15EXs it wants.

As lawmakers weigh the military’s request and work out conditions, Air Force magazine has published an infographic comparing the two fighters.

Both fighters cost roughly $80 million apiece, according to Air Force. But the similarity ends there. The F-35 is stealthier but the F-15 flies higher, farther and faster and carries more weaponry.

A Russian-made S-400 air-defense system could detect an F-35 at 20 miles, Air Force estimated. It could pick up an F-15EX 200 miles away.

While an F-35 can carry 22,000 pounds of munitions to a ceiling of 50,000 feet and a distance of 670 miles at a top speed of Mach 1.6, the F-15EX can haul 29,500 pounds of weapons as high as 60,000 feet and as far as 1,100 miles at a top speed of Mach 2.5.

An F-35 costs $35,000 per hour to operate. An F-15EX costs $27,000 per hour.

The new Eagle’s main advantage, however, is that existing F-15 squadrons quickly and cheaply can convert to the type, Air Force‘s John Tirpak explained.

“The F-15EX, USAF argues, is essentially an in-production aircraft. It has upward of 70-percent parts commonality with the F-15C and E already in USAF service and can use almost all the same ground equipment, hangars, simulators and other support gear as the Eagles now in service,” according to Tirpak.

“At a unit price roughly comparable to that of the F-35, F-15 squadrons could transition to the F-15EX in a matter of weeks, whereas converting pilots, maintainers, facilities and equipment to the F-35 takes many months, the Air Force says.”

The new Eagles would replace 1980s-vintage F-15Cs in some or all of the nine squadrons that fly the older type, mostly for patrols over the United States.

The F-15EX boasts better sensors and avionics than the F-15C has and can carry more weapons than the older Eagle can do. Owing to worsening metal fatigue, the old F-15Cs "won't make it to 2030," Air Force major general David Krumm, the service's director of strategic plans and requirements, told Tirpak and fellow Air Force magazine reporter Brian Everstine.

Critics of the F-15EX include some experts as well as lawmakers in districts that heavily depend on Boeing-rival Lockheed. The Air Force for 2020 has asked to purchase 48 stealthy F-35s from Lockheed. That's far short of the 80 to 100 F-35s the Air Force wants to buy every year but says it can’t afford.

Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense News that buying F-15EXs would not impact the service's planned acquisition of more than 1,700 F-35s. "They complement each other," Goldfein said. "They each make each other better."

But non-stealthy F-15s are "unable to survive against the threats of biggest concern in our national-defense strategy." David Deptula, a retired Air Force general and former F-15 pilot who is now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Virginia, wrote in a Feb. 11, 2019 op-ed for Forbes.

The Air Force insists that buying F-15EXs won’t reduce its requirement for 1,763 F-35s. But the service in its 2020 budget request asks for 24 fewer F-35s through 2024 compared to the 2019 plan.

The new F-15 itself is something of a mystery. “Details about exactly what version of the plane the Air Force would buy remain murky, pending negotiations with Boeing,” Air Force magazine explained. “House authorizers want a clearer picture before they commit to spending the full amount.”

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.