PARIS AIR SHOW NEWS: Boeing's F-15EX Fighter Designed to Carry Hypersonic Missiles
PARIS — In addition to a number of other capability upgrades, the new variant of the F-15 fighter jet will be able to launch hypersonic weapons once they are available, according to manufacturer Boeing.
The plane, known as the EX model, is “a huge capability leap” from legacy F-15s, Boeing test pilot Matt “Phat” Geise said June 19 during a discussion with a small group of reporters at the Paris Air Show. It includes an advanced radar, electronic warfare system, mission computer processor, cockpit display and weapons capacity. The platform can carry up to 22 air-to-air-missiles depending on the configuration, he added.
National Defense asked Boeing officials if the plane could carry hypersonics — cutting-edge missiles that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or faster and are highly maneuverable — once they are fielded.
“Absolutely,” Boeing Vice President for Global Sales and Marketing Jeff Shockey said. “That was a part of the thought process in the design.”
Hypersonics are a top research-and-development priority for the Pentagon. They are considered by many observers to be a game-changing capability because of their ability to strike targets quickly and overwhelm enemy air defenses. Defense officials hope to begin fielding the weapons in the early-2020s to keep pace with China and Russia, which are developing similar technology.
Earlier during the air show, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman revealed that they are partnering on a new hypersonic cruise missile system that will soon undergo its first test flight. It is one of a number of projects that the U.S. military and industry are pursuing.
Shockey said Boeing could deliver the first two F-15EX aircraft to the Air Force by late next year, depending on how the budget process plays out. The Pentagon plans to procure eight F-15EXs in fiscal year 2020 and a total of 80 over the next five years.
Some of the work done on the company’s next-generation T-X jet trainer — a major program that the company won last year — has carried over into the new fighter variant, noted Geise.
“We have some advanced proprietary manufacturing techniques that we used … on T-X that we have very recently been able to pull forward into our advanced F-15 factory line,” he said. “We had a nose barrel redesign" and other changes to aid assembly, he added.
“It reduces the time on the factory line as well,” he said. “It gets you more efficient and allows you to have more throughput.”
Similarities between the two systems will enable pilots who train on the T-X to easily transition to flying the F-15EX, he noted.
Observers have labeled another souped-up Boeing fighter, the F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, as a 4.5-generation aircraft to suggest that it is superior to legacy fourth-generation planes but not as advanced as stealthy fifth-generation aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 joint strike fighter or F-22 Raptor. Shockey said he would describe the F-15EX is “at least 4.75[-gen].”
Critics of the proposal to purchase the F-15EX have said it would not be as survivable or useful as the F-35 in a high-end fight against advanced adversaries. The Air Force should be focused on purchasing fifth-generation fighters, the critics have argued. But Geise said other platforms can still play an important role in that type of conflict.
“The EX is certainly complementary in the high-end fight,” he said. “At the end of the day you have to service the targets, and you do that with precision-guided munitions” that could be launched from the platform.
One of the main selling points for countries buying fourth-generation aircraft is that they have been less costly to procure, maintain and operate than the more capable but also more expensive F-35. However, the price tag for the joint strike fighter has been coming down. The Defense Department recently reached a “handshake agreement” with Lockheed for low-rate initial production Lots 12, 13 and 14 that anticipates a major reduction in the cost per aircraft. By Lot 13, the price point for the Air Force’s F-35A variant is expected to drop below $80 million.
Shockey said the F-15EX would still be cost competitive with the F-35A in the coming years, but he argued that the two aircraft shouldn’t be seen as competitors since lawmakers appear ready to robustly fund both programs based on recent legislative markups.
Defense officials have said one reason they decided to buy the F-15EX was to promote the health of the industrial base. Shockey said additional fighter purchases in recent years have changed the trajectory for Boeing.
“At one point we were on a pathway to wind down the F/A-18 line, the F-15 line. So the St. Louis industrial base was going to start to become a very bleak place and a dark picture as far as manufacturing,” he said.
However, with the U.S. government and overseas partner now lining up to buy new variants of those fighters as well as other aircraft such as the T-X, “we've really turned the corner there,” he added. “St. Louis is a thriving place right now for Boeing.”