Last July, I broke a story about the existence of Boeing’s F-15X Advanced Eagle concept, one that the plane-maker had been in discussions with the USAF about for many months. That aircraft would be procured to replace America’s existing F-15C/D aircraft, the vast majority of which are operated by the Air National Guard. Since my expose, the USAF has officially remained somewhat flippant about the F-15X and its talks with Boeing, which isn’t surprising, but according to a Bloomberg report, that is about to change dramatically very soon.
The F-15X airframe would be single seat, but it would incorporate decades of innovations that are being applied currently in the latest F-15 Strike Eagle derivatives being purchased by Saudi Arabia (F-15SA) and Qatar (F-15QA). With an airframe life of a whopping 20,000 hours, and the latest sensors, flight control systems, and avionics, the F-15X would serve for many decades at an operating cost that Boeing claims will trounce that of the existing F-15C/D fleet—the youngest of which is now 32 years old—basically paying for the airframes with savings within about a decade.
Roxana Tiron of Bloomberg Government writes that the USAF will include “$1.2 billion for 12 Boeing F-15 X fighter aircraft” in its 2020 budget request that is due to be published in February. The story also notes that pressure to buy the F-15X is coming from the powers that be inside the Pentagon that are external to the USAF itself, which would explain the disconnect over potential procurement program with the service’s top leadership:
“The decision to buy the newest kind of F-15 aircraft, so far only sold to U.S. allies, comes from the Pentagon’s top leadership, including with some prodding from Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, and not the Air Force, which would be flying the planes, the two people said. Shanahan, a former Boeing Co. executive, recused himself from any decisions related to Boeing when he was confirmed by the Senate.”
You can read Tiron’s report in its entirety here.
Until the budget request is released, these things can always change. But this report would line up with what I have heard about the concept and how it has support from top officials at the Pentagon. We also don’t know what the structure of the deal would look like, if it is just for a dozen F-15s or if it also includes additional items and services.
Our sources say that Boeing has been eager to package the F-15X with aggressive business terms in order to make the USAF an Eagle customer once again. This could include a low or even zero cost development of the new subtype, as well as guarantees on unit cost and even the price of elements of the aircraft’s sustainment over time. Boeing has been ultra-aggressive with their aircraft bids as of late—a strategy that helped win them the UH-1 replacement tender, the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray tanker competition, and the prized T-X next generation Air Force jet trainer contract.
The idea behind the whole F-15X initiative is not to compete directly with the F-35, but to provide the USAF with a fiscally and operationally attractive “plug and play” option for replacing the rapidly aging F-15C/D fleet comprised of roughly 235 aircraft. These jets will need invasive and costly upgrades in the coming years in order to remain airworthy and relevant for front-line operations.
The USAF has been contemplating what to do with the F-15C/D fleet, which has received some major upgrades in recent years. Paying for major structural and technological upgrades has been looked at, but that would mean investing heavily in airframes that are already over three decades old. Retiring the force outright and possibly replacing them with F-16s upgraded with active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars is another option, albeit a very controversial one. The F-15X would provide a third and highly attractive alternative, both on capability and fiscal grounds and due to the fact that it can plug directly into the USAF’s existing Eagle infrastructure.
The reality is that for many tasks, including the homeland air sovereignty operations, the low-observable features of an F-35 are useless. There are many combat missions that actually benefit from a heavy fighter that can carry large stores over long ranges, as opposed to a stealth fighter with more limited payload and range capabilities. Israel seems to have come to this conclusion as well, incidentally. This is where the F-15X also comes into play for the USAF. Once again, read all about this aircraft and how it fits into the USAF’s force structure in my past feature that unveiled it.
The F-15X is not intended to compete directly with the F-35A, but it will be incredibly hard to make this clear considering the special interests behind the F-35 program. Historically, any tactical aircraft program that siphons a dollar away from the DoD budget that could even potentially be used to buy more F-35s is labeled as a threat to the program and/or wasteful.
Above all else, this report underscores what I have been hearing, that the F-15X is not only still alive in Pentagon planning circles, but the need for it has only become more apparent. We’ll have to wait for the final budget to be released to see the F-15X as an official procurement program for ourselves, but suffice it to say, the Eagle’s chances of rolling off the production line in St. Louis and being flown directly to operational U.S. fighter squadrons once again is greater now than it has been in many, many years.
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