None of the service's proffered explanations stands up to analysis.
This year, the U.S. Air Force signed a contract to develop, test and buy at least 140 Boeing F-15EXs. As mistakes go, this is a big one, and its impact will be with us for decades.
How bad is it? Consider this analogy.
Let’s say you wanted to purchase home internet service and found two options. The first would cost $102 a month for a dial-up modem that delivered 56 kilobits of data per second. The second would cost $77.90 a month for an upgradeable 5G router that delivered 1 terabyte of data per second. So, your choice is: pay 31 percent more for dated technology that delivers considerably less capability, or get brand-new technology compatible with today’s and tomorrow’s informational demands for $24.10 less. Seems pretty clear cut, right?
In deciding to fund the acquisition of the F-15EX, Congress has chosen the dial-up option. When the Air Force signs that contract, it will be stuck with already-dated equipment for the next 30 years.
Here are nine reasons why Congress should remove the authorization to acquire the F-15EX from the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
1. Acquisition cost. In fiscal year 2022, the Air Force will pay $77.9 million for each fully equipped and ready-for-combat F-35A it acquires. Each F-15EX, on the other hand, will cost $87.7 million — but that’s for an airshow capability. If the Air Force wants to fly it in combat, then each jet needs a $12.2 million electronic countermeasures system known as the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability system, or EPAWSS, and a $900,000 targeting pod. This brings the cost of a combat-ready F-15EX to $102 million, 30 percent more than an F-35A.
2. Operational capability. The F-15EX airframe was designed 45 years ago. While many of its electronic boxes carry more modern capabilities, most were considered new technology when baby-boomers were still using a dial-up internet service. Its metal skin covering will serve as a homing beacon for modern surface-to-air missiles. To survive merely at the fringes of a peer’s air defenses, the F-15EX requires numerous other fighter and electronic countermeasures jets to protect it. In mock air-to-air combat training, stealth fighters destroy fourth-generation fighters like the F-15EX at a kill ratio that often exceeds 16-to-1. Perhaps those numbers are wild exaggerations; perhaps the F-35 is really equal to, say, just two of those $102 million fighters. Somehow paying $204 million for a capability $77.9 million can buy does not seem like a good deal for America.
3. Operating costs. One of the biggest arguments for the F-15EX is how much cheaper it will be to operate than the F-35, but even that argument is flawed. The price for fuel, oil, and the maintenance personnel it takes to launch, maintain, and repair a fighter are combined into a total dollar figure known as the cost per flying hour, or CPFH. The F-15EX’s CPFH was recently estimated to be $27,000 by the Defense Department’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation—the same office that pushed the Air Force to acquire the F-15EX. Bizarrely, that price does not include the operations and support costs for the targeting pods and ECM equipment—components the F-15EX requires for combat. That same office estimated the F-35A’s CPFH had dropped from $32,554 an hour in 2014 to $30,137 in 2018 – a price that includes all combat requirements. In real terms, the total CPFH for the F-35A and F-15EX are now a wash, but the F-15EX costs are based on its older sibling, the F-15E, which has been flying for the last 35 years. Those costs won’t budge over the years ahead, while the F-35A’s CPFH is still falling.
4. Reduced training time and cost. In its defense of the F-15EX, Air Force officials say squadrons that currently fly the F-15C will be able to switch more easily to a new version of the Eagle than to the F-35. But the F-15EX is a dual-role fighter, meant to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground missions—and most of the Air National Guard’s F-15C pilots have never dropped a bomb in their lives. Learning the air-to-surface mission will take almost as much time in the F-15EX as it will in the F-35A. The same thing is true for maintenance professionals who will have to repair the jets, load the munitions, launch the aircraft, and arm and de-arm weapons that many have never handled in their careers.
5. Fighter combat capacity. The five operational squadrons that will receive the F-15EX currently fly the F-15C Eagle. In its heyday, the Eagle was the world’s best air-to-air fighter; it could deploy globally, fly out in front of strike platforms, and decimate an enemy fighter force for the rest of us. Unfortunately, modern surface-to-air weapons are too good to allow non-stealth fighters to sweep out in front of other aircraft. Older planes can’t even provide top cover over “low threat” countries like Syria, which operates the highly capable Russian S-300 SAM system. By the time all 140 F-15EXs are on the ramp in 2030, even better Russian S-400s will be everywhere, essentially limiting the F-15EX mission to stateside air defense. In other words, every squadron that converts to the F-15EX will become one less squadron the U.S. can deploy to a high-end fight.
6. Defending the continental United States. While the F-15EX capabilities are below the threshold required for a peer fight, they are well beyond the requirements for homeland defense. The jet’s advertised combat radius and ability to carry 22 air-to-air missiles are dazzling, but fighters operate in pairs, which means two F-15EXs would have an absurd 44 missiles to defend a single swath of U.S. territory. The last time we needed that many missiles or a 700-nautical-mile combat radius to defend the homeland was, well…never. The F-15EX is overkill for that mission – $24.1 million of overkill. The range and missile capacity of a flight of two F-16s is more than adequate to defend against bomber or cruise missile threats, and those jets would be much cheaper. So would brand-new, fifth-generation F-35As.
7. Weapons capacity. The F-15EX’s weapons capacity is impressive, but irrelevant in a high-end fight because the jet won’t likely survive long enough to fire or drop them. The F-35’s stealth configuration allows it to engage air-to-air targets with four missiles before enemy fighters or SAM systems can engage it. In a non-stealth configuration, the carriage capacity of the F-35 is almost as “dazzling” (and tactically irrelevant) as the F-15EX. Its 16-missile capacity is twice the number any U.S. fighter has ever carried into combat, and more than double the number any pilot has attempted to fire in combat.
8. The fighter industrial base. The U.S. has just two companies that produce fighters, but acquiring or forgoing the acquisition of the F-15EX will likely have no impact on the U.S. industrial base. In 2018, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet production line already had a seven-year backlog and, with the potential for sales to India or Finland, production of that aircraft could extend even beyond 2025. Qatar should receive the first of 36 F-15Qs this year from the same production line that will produce the F-15EX, and that nation has an option for another 36 jets on the horizon. The Air Force just signed a multi-year contract for Boeing’s T-7, the Air Force’s new advanced trainer, a variant of which is now being considered as a light air defense fighter to provide a capable and genuinely economical way to defend the homeland. And unlike the FA-18 or F-15EX, the T-7’s price tag, method of construction and open architecture design make it something the Air Force should want more of. That jet, alone, will keep Boeing’s fighter-capable production lines open through at least 2033 – three years beyond the Air Force’s current plan for the F-15EX.
9. The new construction argument. Historically, the Air Force has used major fighter acquisition programs as a premise to fund bed-down location updates for everything from squadron operations and maintenance facilities to resurfacing runways. While those updates are long overdue for many operational locations, the F-35A itself doesn’t require any new construction. Unlike previous stealth aircraft, the F-35A does not need special hangars or facilities. The radar-absorbing material on the F-117A, B-2, and F-22A was incredibly hard to maintain and could actually be damaged by the sun if those jets were parked on an open ramp. The F-35A’s exterior, however, is covered by fourth-generation stealth material; it requires no special maintenance facilities and can park in open sunlight — no new shelters required. And, the “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities,” or SCIFs, required for classified systems are already at the proposed bed-down locations. The airfields that will receive the F-15EX need those updates, but the service isn’t tying their expense to the F-15EX as they are for the F-35 bed-down. Those costs will be rolled in quietly, just like the F-15EX’s ECM and targeting pod, to mask their linkage to this jet.
The choice for Congress seems relatively clear. It can fund the acquisition of 140 F-15EXs and field fighters that deliver markedly less capability, will cost more to operate, will reduce our deployable combat capability, are overqualified for the homeland Air Defense mission, and whose acquisition will not affect the fighter industrial base. Or they can acquire 183 F-35As for the same price.
Let’s hope they choose wisely.