AIR FORCE NEWS
JUST IN: Sec. Wilson: F-15EX Needed to Fill Capacity Gaps
Photo: Air Force
The Air Force's decision to purchase a souped-up version of the F-15 fighter jet will help the service meet its capacity and readiness goals through the year 2030, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said March 27.
In the president’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, the Air Force is asking to purchase eight Boeing built F-15EX fighter jets.
“We think it was the right thing to do to keep that capacity high,” Wilson said in regards to the Air Force asking to purchasing the aircraft.
The move to acquire the updated version of the F-15 aircraft to replace the older F-15C/D was not originally part of the service's proposal to the Pentagon.
“Our  budget proposal that we originally submitted [to the office of the secretary of defense] did not include fourth-generation aircraft,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters in early March.
The decision came after the service dissected the national defense strategy and the variety of missions it could task the Air Force with, Wilson said during a talk at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“We are seeing a decline in the number of fighters available, the increase in the average age of those fighters, and if we look at the whole system and the whole capacity over the next 10 to 20 years, one of the airframes that is not going to make it is the F-15C,” Wilson said.
To remedy this, service leaders agreed on replacing the aging aircraft with the F-15EX to keep the Air Force's aircraft capacity high through the 2030s and beyond, Wilson noted.
“That was the nature of the analysis and the decision as we went through the budget development with the money that we have available,” she added.
Another issue on the table while making the decision was maintaining the defense industrial base, according to a senior defense official.
After the decision was made to continue with a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, “the conversation then turned to how are we going to maintain a robust industrial base,” a Pentagon official, who declined to be named, official told reporters during a press briefing at the Pentagon on March 22.
“For the future of the Department of Defense, it's going to be good to have multiple providers in the tactical aircraft portfolio … and that's what led our way into the F-15EX decision,” he added.
The official said the F-15EX may not in the future be able to penetrate enemy air defenses like Lockheed Martin-built F-35 joint strike fighter, but it could be part of a "mix" of aircraft, each with different roles. "The services are starting to examine more and more the interaction between stand-in and stand-off and the additional capability that kind of teaming brings to the battlefield. .... The F-15 is never going to be a stand-in weapon, but stand-in weapon with sensors, communicating back to a stand-off platform that carries a lot more munitions is a pretty powerful combination that the services are starting to examine."
The strategic decision to pursue a mix of aircraft came from former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Then the question turned to what fourth-generation aircraft the Air Force should pursue, the official said. That was when defense industrial base issues came into play and Boeing's F-15EX was chosen. At no time was Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan involved in the discussions, the official said. As a former Boeing executive, ethics rules prevented him from being part of the conversation, the official said.
While the Air Force pursues the new fourth-generation aircraft, Wilson noted that the force is still gung-ho about the F-35A “The Air Force is all in on the F-35. It is a complete game-changing aircraft," she said. "It is not just an aircraft, it is an information-fusion engine."
"We are going to have a mixture of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft well through the 2030s and beyond," she added.
The Air Force needs to purchase 72 aircraft a year to improve and retain readiness, according to Wilson. The service was originally hoping to ramp up purchases of the F-35, which is expected to be the centerpiece of the future fleet.
A Defense Department cost analysis showed that over the course of a year, fifth-generation aircraft are more expensive to operate and maintain than four-generation aircraft, so the decision was made to buy fewer F-35s and the eight F-15EX, the official said. "We can simply buy more capacity with a mix of planes that appropriately matches the mission set than we can if we went into a full fifth-gen portfolio," he said.—Additional reporting by Connie Lee