America depends on airpower to deter, and if deterrence fails, to fight and win. A key element of America’s airpower is the fighter force.
Today, the U.S. Air Force flies a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. The fourth-gen fleet is the backbone of today’s force, filling the majority of combatant commander taskings worldwide. The smaller fleet of fifth-gen fighters, 187 F-22’s and, so far, 172 F-35A’s, are the most lethal and survivable fighters in the world. Up to now, this mix of a small fifth-gen fleet combined with a large fleet of fourth-gen fighters has proven adequate in meeting today’s warfighting needs.
However, the ability of the Air Force to meet its air superiority requirement is at risk because the fourth-gen F-15C air superiority fleet is at risk of “aging out.” When the Pentagon truncated the original F-22 buy, the Air Force was forced to retain legacy F-15C’s. Unfortunately, legacy F-15C’s will require significant upgrades to make them viable in the future.
The fighter force is stressed and the Air Force must procure 72 fighters per year to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy. Current operations tempo is high with no relief in sight. Fighter availability is low and could get lower as the existing force enters an aggressive and often time-consuming upgrade schedule. Fourth-gen maintenance costs continue to climb as the aircraft continue to age. Fifth-gen cost per flying hour is high, and fourth-gen cost per flying hour is increasing.
One common sense way to mitigate these challenges is the immediate procurement of Boeing’s F-15EX to refresh the F-15C fleet. The F-15EX is a fourth-gen “plus” fighter that can significantly complement the capabilities and, most important, the capacity of the current fighter force.
The F-15EX is immediately available, affordable and sustainable. The F-15EX can do missions that do not require fifth-gen stealth but do require advanced sensors, large weapons capacity, datalinks, and range to optimize effectiveness and survivability. Units transitioning to the F-15EX will minimize readiness downtime because it requires modest additional training for aircrew and maintenance personnel. Units transitioning to the F-15EX will not need completely new ground equipment, hangars, operations facilities and depot repair facilities. An incredible 20,000-hour airframe life will serve the nation well and bridge fighter force capability and capacity as we procure our full complement of F-35s.
Tactically, the F-15EX’s Eagle Passive-Active Warning Survivability System, an impressive electronic warfare and integrated countermeasure system suite, makes it more survivable and can complement the electronic warfare tactical game plan of the fifth-gen fleet.
Operationally, F-15EX capabilities will significantly expand tactics, techniques and procedures for warfighter planning operations. As an available in-production foreign military sales fighter, it can help build partnership capacity with allies that may not need, want or cannot afford a fifth-gen fighter.
Strategically, retaining an active fighter production line is important to maintain American strength. An F-15EX investment would maintain the robust industrial base this country needs to deter or fight adversaries.
Complementing the current fourth- and fifth-gen fighter mix with the F-15EX is a reasonable and affordable way to ensure the viability and strength of the future fighter force. As the Air Force procures the full complement of planned fifth-gen fighters, the increased capability and capacity of the F-15EX is prudent and wise.
Many will argue we cannot afford to add another fighter to our inventory, but procuring the F-15EX is really about refreshing our air superiority fleet capacity so the fourth- and fifth-gen fighter mix is ready to meet future warfighting requirements. Considering the possibility of an existential great power, near-peer conflict with China or Russia, I say we have no choice.
– Frank Gorenc (Air Force, retired) is a four-star general who served as commander of Allied Air Command, NATO and U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.