An F-15E Strike Eagle sits at the 332d Air Expeditionary Wing on Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrew Satran)After nearly twenty years, the U.S. Air Force is buying a brand new F-15 eagle fighter jet.
On Tuesday, a pair of twin pre-solicitation notices posted to the U.S. government’s contract opportunities hub announced the Air Force’s intent to procure both upgraded Boeing-made F-15EX fighters and fresh General Electric F110 jet engines associated with the new aircraft.
This is the first concrete step to signing new orders and reviving U.S. F-15 procurement after a nearly 20-year hiatus.
The last year that Boeing produced an F-15 fighter for the Air Force was in 2004, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that President Donald Trump signed into law in December provided the Air Force with $1.1 billion to procure up to eight F-15EX aircraft, including two prototypes, ahead of testing by the service.
The aircraft’s inclusion in the fiscal year 2020 defense budget wasn’t easy: In September 2018, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in September stated that the Air Force had no interest in picking up the fourth-generation F-15EX over additional fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
“We are currently 80 percent fourth-gen aircraft and 20 percent fifth-generation aircraft,” Wilson told Defense News at the time. “In any of the fights that we have been asked to plan for, more fifth-gen aircraft make a huge difference, and we think that getting to 50-50 means not buying new fourth-gen aircraft, it means continuing to increase the fifth generation.”
After Wilson resigned in March 2019, the Air Force reversed course, proposing a buy of eight F-15EX aircraft rather than the Pentagon’s original proposal of a dozen as a “short-term patch” to replace the service’s aging fourth-generation F-15C fleet without cannibalizing spending for the F-35.
“We absolutely [are] adamant that the F-35 program, the program of record, absolutely stays on track and we don’t take a dime out of the F-35,” as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee the following April.
The F-15 Eagle first flew in the 1970s, and by the late 1970s achieved operational status with the U.S. Air Force. In the late 1980s, the pure air-to-air fighter was modified to strike targets on the ground, earning it the multi-role description. The U.S. Air Force bought the last of these F-15E jets in 2001, back when Boeing could brag that the jets would receive “active-matrix liquid crystal displays,” or LCD displays, instead of old fashioned cathode ray tube displays also found on big, boxy television sets.
The end of American purchases of the F-15 didn’t spell the end of the line for the Eagle. Boeing continued to develop the plane, adding the latest technology for clients including Israel, South Korea, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. In 2018 Boeing pitched a new version, the F-15EX, not as a replacement for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but to operate alongside it.
The F-15EX features all the latest technology, integration already paid for by foreign clients, plus the ability to carry 22 AIM-9X Sidewinder and AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles. Air Force Magazine reports other improvements to include a “substantially more powerful mission computer, new cockpit displays, a digital backbone, and the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS)—electronic warfare and threat identification system.”
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, on the other hand, can only carry four AMRAAM missiles in an internal weapons bay, a result of its need to fly without missiles and other equipment hanging off its wings to preserve its anti-radar stealth profile. The F-15 doesn’t have any internal bays but has lots of missile racks. The F-35 and F-15EX will likely fly in pairs, with the F-35 quietly detecting enemy fighters while the F-15EX services them with air-to-air missiles.
The Air Force is preparing to buy two F-15EXs. It wanted to buy eight fighters as a down payment on a force of at least 72, but Congress refused to buy the full eight—at least for now anyway. Congress has agreed to fund another six after the service provides a report outlining how it intends to buy the entire fleet.