Back to the Future? USAF Upgrading F15s

Reports have emerged that the US Air Force is buying fewer F35s and will purchase more of the F15x instead. December’s military budget increased the USAF budget from 1.1 to 1.6 billion, which will allow them to acquire as many as 20 F15x fighters.

Why is the Decision to Buy the New Fighter Jets Controversial?

This move isn’t without controversy on both sides. Many in the top leadership opposed the purchase of the F15Xs. They say the planes are unable to penetrate the air defenses of modern states that employ systems like the Russian made S400 missiles, or compete with the Chinese J20 and other advanced fighters. Thus, the criticism is that the air force is taking away from the fighter of the future to put band aids on an aging and increasingly obsolete fighter.

But the F35 is no stranger to controversy. It has faced numerous technical problems, cost overruns, and continues to be rather expensive to maintain. As many as half of the F35s have been grounded at one point due to a lack of spare parts and over-active sensors and recent reports suggest they have as many as 900 total problems.

Arguments in Favor of the F15X

Despite the arguments against it, there are good arguments to make in favor of the F15X. It replaces the older variants and, in the process, reduces the operating cost of the fighter from 44,000 dollars per hour to 27,000. Because it’s an upgrade to an existing plane it can be integrated into the present force structure and be maintained at lower cost than the F35s. Half of those grounded F35’s mentioned above aren’t because of major or insurmountable technical issues but because there is a supply bottleneck for needed parts.

Most importantly, the F15 has been called the king of air-to-air combat. Until the debut of the F22 it was the most formidable weapon in America’s arsenal, and it is still potent despite most of the fighters being 30 to 40 years old. It famously defeated an F35 in dogfight tests several years ago. The plane might not be able to penetrate defenses, but it can quickly reach cruising speed. Combined with lowering its operating cost it would make the F15X good for air defense patrols in low intensity regions such as Syria or Iraq.

But its strengths are amplified when paired with the F35.  The strengths of the F35 include its advanced sensors and stealth that let it penetrate air defenses (and make the F15 look obsolete.) But its weakness is that the F35 is designed to be good at a bunch of missions but not great at any of them except using its stealth and radar to penetrate air defense.  Even though the F35 pilots have become more familiar with the thrust and maneuverability of the craft, they still haven’t closed the gap in dogfighting capability with the F15.  If they go into beast mode by carrying a full complement of external missiles, it reduces stealth.

Enter the F15.  It is still a formidable air to air and air to ground combat plane and it can receive targeting data from F35s. The F15 can carry 22 air to air missiles (compared to the 16 of the F35, or just 6-8 if they maintain stealth) and could use F35 targeting data to hit beyond the horizon.  One top of that the F15x will have the ability to carry heavier loads and pods that contain advanced sensors.

Advanced Tech Paired With Low-Cost Upgrades

Thus, it becomes a cost effective way to use advanced technology paired with low cost upgrades to existing technology. In the case of military conflict, the F35 would do what it is good at. It uses its stealth to penetrate enemy air defenses with relative ease and locates enemy planes, radar, command centers, and airfields. The F15 operates farther away, at a higher altitude, and then quickly moves within firing range and launches it’s massive assortment of missiles at the identified targets. The F15 could also use its radar to relay targets to F35’s operating with its active radar off. This would enhance the latter’s ability to strike enemy aircraft before they even knew they were in danger.

The range at which this is done is especially important as China relies upon a strategy that seeks to launch as many missiles and air defenses as possible that they provide a swarm of threats that nations like the US can’t operate in the theater. But the extended sensors connected to the battle loaded F15 promise to strike outside of the range of those defenses and render them moot.

As with all platforms there are various debates and controversies, but this seems like a decent measure to get more planes in the air to work in conjunction with a smaller number of more advanced planes. There is no need to abandon a plane simply because of its age, especially when it has such inherent and awesome abilities as the F15, and when there are constant budget concerns and rival powers.