US official advocates F-15EX expansion, questions F-35 dominance

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The Boeing F-15EX Eagle II has earned high praise from Lt Gen Michael A. Loh, the Head of the US National Guard. Its long range, expanded weapons capacity, and simple integration with current practices are exceptional. Interestingly, it stands up quite well against the stealth F-35A. 

Photo by Jerry McGrath

In a noteworthy first, this versatile fighter, capable in any weather, is the inaugural US Air Force aircraft to have undergone joint operational and developmental testing from its creation to its launch. 

At a recent event held by the US Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh spoke highly of the F-15EX Eagle II airplane. He believes the Air Force can immensely benefit from these aircraft. In a conversation with reporters, he shared, “The F-15EX’s first deployment is to the National Guard. This plane serves two main purposes. It’s a defense tool for our homeland as well as a means to project power. Its fighting capability is much better than the F-15E’s. It’s significantly more advanced.” 

Loh stated, “Our unique operating system on the F-15EX allows us to easily use the required sensors, weapons, and other combat materials. We can quickly update this system without interfering with the Operational Flight Program [OFP]. This flexibility is a major advantage in modern warfare.” 

He also highlighted the F-15EX’s ability to use advanced long-distance weapons like JASSM-ERs and long-range missiles. With its built-in fuel tanks, the aircraft can carry out lengthy missions, providing the potential for air superiority in future conflicts. He hinted this could be significant in any potential conflict with China. 

Essentially, Loh has been advocating for more F-15EX jets in the Air Guard’s inventory. When the planned number of jets was reduced from 144 to just 80 in the FY2023 budget, Loh made it clear he is going to keep pushing for more F-15EXs. 

Photo credit: Boeing

In addition, the US Air National Guard also now has F-35s. For example, three F-35 Lightning II fighter jets have just been delivered to the Alabama Air National Guard unit, 187th Fighter Wing. This makes them the third ANG unit to have these aircraft. The Force expects to receive 20 more F-35s in the next five years, replacing their old F-16s. 

A military analyst discussed why the Air Guard prefers the F-15EX fighters. “The main goal is to offer an upgrade to our existing F-15s, which are gradually aging and becoming expensive to maintain. It seems more logical to introduce a superior version of the same jet rather than introducing an entirely new plane into our system.” 

While many analysts emphasize the requirement for a stealth fighter in the fleet, supporters of the F-15EX argue that its roles are different from those assigned to the F-35, thereby justifying its usefulness. 

Photo credit: RAAF / X

Recently, the F-15EX fighter plane successfully completed a missile test. This means it’s closer to being able to carry more air-to-air missiles than any other fighter plane, outperforming models like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35, and the F-22 Raptor. 

What’s also important to realize is that the expected operational lifespan of an F-15EX is an incredible 20,000 hours. If you compare that to the F-35’s 8,000 hours, it becomes clear that the Air Force would need three F-35As to equal the operational hours of just one F-15EX. 

Of course, as with anything, there are critics. Some wonder why the Air Guard doesn’t choose a more advanced, fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II aircraft. The reason is actually because of issues with the F-35 production line and inconsistent deliveries, especially with rapidly growing demands for exports. 

Interestingly, despite ANG authorities previously expressing interest in equipping every ANG unit operating F-15s with either F-35s or F-15EXs, most military observers and ANG officials believe that the F-15EX is the best option for enhancing combat effectiveness, particularly if F-35s are not available. 

Photo by Samuel King Jr.

It’s worth mentioning that last year, the US Air Force [USAF] was pleasantly surprised by the new F-15EX fighter jet. After two years of testing, the jet exceeded expectations in areas such as firepower and precision performance. They also highlighted that the F-15EX could perform bombing operations as successfully as the F-35 but at a much lower cost. 

However, things have changed over the past year. The F-15EX is now more expensive than the F-35 aircraft, which makes the Air Guard chief’s request for F-15EX jets somewhat surprising.

Ballooning F-15EX Price Tag

There has been some criticism regarding the F-15EX, both from within the United States Air Force and from outside. It’s interesting to note that this fighter jet, which was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, has turned out to be more expensive. This multi-role combat aircraft has raised some budgetary concerns due to its high cost. 

When you compare the second production batch of each plane, the F-15EX Eagle II’s price tag is a staggering $90 million. To give you an idea, that’s about $7.5 million more than the latest quoted price for an F-35A. 

Last October, an Air Force spokesperson revealed some changes to the F-15EX program’s cost structure. According to them, the cost of the F-15EX would start around $90 million for the second lot, increase to $97 million for the third lot, and then drop back to $94 million for the fourth lot. 

Photo credit: USAF

However, following the announcement that the F-15EX Eagle II fighter aircraft’s price would climb from the second lot to the third, aeronautics giant Boeing began seeking ways to manage these rising costs. Their team believes that they can maintain the “flyaway cost” (the cost for each jet once it’s ready to fly) under $80 million. 

In November 2022, the first contract was approved for a batch of jets, including two for testing. Each jet was priced at just over $80.5 million. This suggests that the price for the F-15EX could rise each year until the fourth batch is produced. 

F-35 Joint Program Office spokesperson, Russ Goemaere, provided a cost comparison. He shared that the average cost of the Air Force’s stealth fighter, considering the 15th to 17th production batches, was $82.5 million. These jets are planned for delivery from 2023 to 2025. 

Mark Sears, Vice President at Boeing, discussed their strategy for saving money with Breaking Defense. He said they’re looking at questions like “How can we buy more at once?”, “How can we work with suppliers to get more value in the long run?”, and “How can we cut costs in our factories, whether through cheaper buildings or better processes?” 

Photo by USAF, Matthew Plew

It’s always a tricky business when you’re comparing two different things like the F-15EX and the F-35A planes, primarily because they aren’t built to perform the same tasks – that’s what the US authorities want to highlight. But with costs for the F-15EX rising, it seems that the US Air Guard is focusing more on how easy it is to use and integrate the plane, along with how many weapons it can carry and how far it can fly, over how well the F-35A can hide.

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