Why the Air Force Is Buying 144 F-15EX Fighter Jets

February 3, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-15F-15EXU.S. Air ForceRussiaChina

Why the Air Force Is Buying 144 F-15EX Fighter Jets

These planes are realiable and now come packed with better technology and lots more missiles.

A late derivative of a mid-1970s platform, Boeing’s F-15EX fighter jet isn’t a particularly innovative product. Why then, is the Air Force buying as many as 144 of these fighters? For one, they can carry loads of missiles.

In a move that reportedly surprised even the Air Force, the Defense Department has procured 144 units of the F-15EX, an advanced F-15 variant. The decision was partly spurred by growth and logistics concerns, with Gen. James ‘Mike’ Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, telling reporters that the F-15EX contract is an “affordable” way to meet the Air Force’s target of acquiring seventy-two new aircraft per year. Citing low operating costs as well as the present interoperability between the F-15’s many variants, the F-15EX’s proponents argue that the transition to a new derivative will be smooth and cost-effective.

As it turns out, the Air Force did not initially request this F-15EX batch in its Financial Year 2020 budget draft. However, Air Force officials have since warmed to the idea of the F-15EX as a low-maintenance replacement to its aging stock of F-15C/D fighters. “We need to replace those F-15Cs with something,” said Gen. Arnold Bunch. We have now looked at … what it takes to modernize that capability up in an F-15C, and the determination we made was that was not what we needed to do.”

Not only is the F-15EX acquisition described as a financially apt move by its proponents, but the new fighter builds on its predecessor in unexpected ways. The F-15EX brings a host of standard-issue upgrades typical to a new fighter revision, including an upgraded radar, new onboard avionics and control systems, as well as a new processor and cockpit display. More surprisingly, the F-15EX offers a colossal armament capacity increase over the original Eagle. At a whopping twenty-two onboard air-to-air missiles, Boeing maintains that the F-15EX “carries more weapons than any other fighter in its class.” For a sense of comparative scale, consider that the baseline F-15 carried just four AMRAAM-style missiles. The F-35 fares similarly poorly by comparison, with its maximum payload capacity of 5,700 pounds in stealth mode and 15,000 more in external storage, in stark contrast with the F-15EX’s 30,000 pounds. The F-35 can hypothetically carry as many as sixteen missiles in its external “beast mode“ configuration, but only at the price of eschewing the stealth performance that is its raison d’etre.

Boeing achieved this prodigious armament capacity boost through further improvements to its Advanced Missile and Bomb Ejection Rack (AMBER) system, turning the F-15 into a remarkably potent missile carrier. The F-15EX can also reportedly launch hypersonic missiles, giving it a niche but potentially valuable role in a major conflict when supported by stealthier planes like the F-22 and F-35.

As argued by the F-15EX’s detractors, there is a sense in which the fighter’s capacity is more of a marketing gimmick than a concrete battlefield advantage; it is difficult to envision a likely scenario in which the F-15EX would both need, and be in a position to, unload all of its twenty-two missiles. Nevertheless, several F-15EXs operating in tandem could possibly be useful as part of a larger attempt to overwhelm the enemy’s airspace in the thankfully remote event of a major conventional war with a rival power like China or Russia.

Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.