The development of the original McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle began during the Vietnam War to meet the United States Air Forces’ need of an air superiority fighter. It was updated as an all-weather strike derivative, the F-15E Strike Eagle, in the 1980s – but those aging aircraft are now in need of replacement.
Even as the United States begins to adopt the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with the Air Force adopting the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A variant, the service will also be getting a fresh batch of F-15s.
These are not the same F-15s that flew during the swinging 70s or even the Reagan Era of the 1980s however.
Meet the F-15EX Eagle II
This month, Lt. Gen Duke Richardson, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics military deputy, presented the F-15EX during an unveiling and naming ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB).
“Undefeated in aerial combat, the F-15 Eagle epitomized air superiority in the minds of our enemies, allies, and the American people for over 45 years, but it was not meant to fly forever,” said Richardson.
“We heard the demand signal from our warfighters,” Richardson added. “I’m pleased to say we’ve responded boldly and decisively, with a proven platform that’s modernized and optimized to maintain air superiority now and into the future.”
The Air Force has announced that it will procure up to 144 F-15EXs from Boeing (which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997), to replace F-15C/D models. The goal of the program under Boeing was to increase the F-15 fleet fighter readiness.
The 173rd Fighter Wing at Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base (ANGB), Oregon is in line to become the first F-15EX formal training unit in 2024. The first operational F-15EX squadron will function in the Oregon ANG for critical homeland defense alert missions.
“Since 1985 the F-15 has had a home in the Guard and Guard Airmen have flown these amazing aircraft both in the defense of the homeland and in every major international conflict since the first Gulf War in 1991,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, ANG director. “Now that is the battle-tested legacy of Guard F-15s – first to the fight, always ready and always there.”
Last summer, the Department of the Air Force announced that it has awarded a nearly $1.2 billion contract for its first lot of eight F-15EX fighter aircraft, which will replace the oldest F-15C/Ds in the current fleet. That purchase was approved in the fiscal year 2020 budget and 12 additional aircraft were requested in the FY21 budget. Pending Congressional approval, over the next five years the Air Force could receive up to 200 of the 21st century version of the Cold War fighter.
The Air Force currently flies 235 of the F-15C/Ds that have been set to be decommissioned or upgraded. Efforts have been made to keep other aging platforms such as the B-52 and B-1 bombers updated with a series of improvements; however, in the case of the F-15C/D aircraft, it was determined it would be cheaper and more cost effective to send those old war birds to pasture and replace with the new F-15EX variant.
The service had first announced plans to acquire the F-15EX as part of the Future Years Defense Program, and it is part of a long-term, $23 billion program that will update the Air Force’s aging fleet of fighter jets while also providing a cost competitive alternative for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Additionally, the contract would give a second life to the F-15 production line in St. Louis, Mo.
Another selling point has been made of the F-15EX’s ease of use, as the Air Force already has the largest F-15 fleet in the world. This would allow for an easy transition to the newer aircraft, while Boeing has also maintained that the F-15EX requires no logistics chains, training squadrons, infrastructure modification, program offices or even weapons integration.
New Version of a Proven Fighter
The F-15EX is a two-seat fighter with capabilities that are completely unique to the Air Force’s version. This includes new fly-by-wire flight controls, improved weapons stations and enhanced electronic warfare suite, as well as advanced radar and computer, conformal fuel tanks and strengthened airframe. The Eagle II will also feature a deep magazine that will allow it to carry a load of advanced weapons – with a 28% larger payload than the older F-15E. However the Eagle II will require only minimal transitional training and little additional manpower from the older versions of the F-15.
It will require little to no infrastructure changes, and the Air Force has estimated that F-15EX Eagle IIs shares about 70% of parts with the current F-15C and F-15E variants that are being replaced. This could result in a fighter that will be easier to build and quicker to put into service.
According to Boeing, the F-15EX can also enable rapid technology insertion that will ensure the platform’s relevance for decades to come. Necessary upgrades can be supplied via an Open Mission Systems Architecture, which can deliver Advanced Battle Management Systems (ABMS) capabilities, allowing the F-15EX to operate independently while isolated but also to reconnect to the global cloud.
F-15EX Versus F-35
One question asked is why the Air Force would opt for a new version – albeit highly updated – of the F-15 even as it is adopting the F-35A Lightning II. It is true that the F-35 is considered a far more capable multi-role aircraft, but simply put, the F-15EX will be able to do things the F-35 can’t.
Key among them is to carry more weapons.
The F-35 can only carry four bombs or missiles when operating in its low signature or stealth mode. This is so that it can maintain a small radar profile to avoid detection. The F-15EX is an air superiority fighter that doesn’t hide from a fight; rather it goes in for the kill.
The Eagle II can carry up to 29,500 pounds of ordnance split into 12 air-to-air hard points or 15 air-to-ground hard points. Powered by twin engines, which are more powerful as well, it will be the fastest fighter in the Air Force’s fleet. Thus it has the ability to outrun an enemy when necessary or stick around for the fight.
A complaint is that the F-15EX isn’t actually “cheaper” than the F-35 to acquire. So an argument has been made that the money spent on the Eagle II could go towards the Lightning II instead. However, it is true that the F-35 is far more expensive to operate and more difficult to repair. Both of which are why the Air Force will operate the updated fourth-generation F-15EX Eagle II even as the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II enters service.
Both are expected to fly high for decades to come.