The Israeli air force wants to buy new F-15EX fighters as well as additional F-35 stealth fighters. But it probably can’t do both at the same time. It must choose.
“Just like the U.S., Israel is wrestling with whether to buy Lockheed’s all-new, stealthy F-35s or the latest upgrade of Boeing’s long-serving F-15,” Breaking Defense noted.
But Israel must make this decision under extraordinary external and internal pressure. From without, it must conduct air strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria amidst rising tensions with Iran.
From within, it must find funding despite a growing budget deficit and an embattled Netanyahu government headed for its second general election in five months this September . “A decision and an acquisition must start now,” an Israeli senior source told Breaking Defense.
The Israeli air force reportedly wants to buy a couple dozen each of F-15EXs and F-35s at a combined cost of around $6 billion. “Given the tight budget, the IAF has to choose which fighter to buy first and which to delay for several years,” according to Breaking Defense.
The United States subsidizes Israel’s weapons-purchases at a cost of billions of dollars annually.
The Israeli air arm already operates 25 F-15I strike fighters as well as the first few of an initial batch of 50 F-35s. Around 50 F-15C/Ds and 200 F-16s round out the IAF’s fighter force.
The fighter Israel chooses for its next purchase could reveal its priorities. “The stealthy F-35 is better able to slip through advanced air-defenses like the Russian-made S-300s now in Syria, but the F-15EX can carry heavier bomb loads: 29,500 pounds for the F-15EX versus 22,000 for the F-35 in a ‘beast mode’ that gives up stealth,” Breaking Defense explained.
“The F-35 has uniquely advanced electronics that enable to scout ahead and spot targets for other aircraft — such as F-15s — but the F-15X is more easily modified with Israeli equipment,” the trade publication continued.
The F-15EX also is big enough to carry Israel’s new Rampage air-launched ballistic missile. The F-35 probably can’t carry the powerful but bulky ALBM.
While Tel Aviv mulls its decision, lawmakers in the U.S. Congress are preparing to settle the U.S. Air Force’s own F-15-versus-F-35 dilemma.
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.
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.