F-15EX ‘Hot Choice’ Over F-35 Stealth Fighters; Top US Official Says Will Push For More Air Superiority Jets

The Boeing F-15EX Eagle II got its seal of approval from Lt Gen Michael A Loh, Director of the US Air National Guard, for its operability as it can carry more weapons and fly longer distances and its easy integration into the service than the stealth F-35A. The all-weather multirole strike fighter is, incidentally, the first US Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end through combined developmental and operational tests. 

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Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, the Director of the US Air National Guard, was all praises for the all-weather multirole strike fighter F-15EX Eagle II and announced that the service would benefit from more of them coming in. Loh was speaking to journalists at a recent roundtable discussion at the recent US Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium.

In an interaction with journalists, Loh said: “So the F-15EX initial fielding is to the National Guard … It is both a homeland defense platform, as well as a power projection platform. It is, I’m going to call it this way: the combat capability of an F-15EX is not that of an F-15E. It’s much better than the F-15E.

Elaborating on the rationale behind the desire to acquire more F-15EX fighters, Loh said, “We can put our operating system on there. We can integrate weapons, sensors — anything that you can think of, we can integrate on that rapidly. And we can do”rapid reprogramming on that system without ever touching the OFP. That is a game changer when you think about modern-day warfare.”

He emphasized that the F-15EX could use any long-range weapon that was available, including JASSM-ERs and long-range missiles. It can go great distances with its conformal fuel tanks, which, according to him, would enable the service to deliver air superiority over distances that will be encountered in future conflicts. Although he did not name an adversary, he may have been hinting at a potential conflict with China.

Loh has advocated boosting the F-15EX in the Air Guard’s inventory for a long time. Earlier in 2022, when the number of jets slated for the service was reduced from 144 to just 80 units as part of the FY2023 budget, Loh said he would push to increase the Air Force’s F-15EX buy.

The US Air Guard is Guard’sing armed with the F-35s. For instance, three F-35 Lightning II fighter jets were delivered to an Alabama Air National Guard unit, 187th Fighter Wing, making it the third ANG unit to fly the aircraft. The Force will receive 20 F-35s over the next five years to replace the F-16s that are currently in service.

When asked why the Air Guard was keener on F-15EX fighters, a military analyst who didn’t want to be named told EurAsian Times, “The priority is to replace the aging F-15s, which are not as capable anymore and have very high maintenance costs. Replacing these jets with an upgraded variant of the same aircraft would make more sense than introducing an all-new aircraft into the”ecosystem.”

While analysts have frequently voiced the need for a stealth fighter in the service over an upgraded F-15, the proponents of F-15EX argue that the F-15EX is an entirely different aircraft meant to perform duties that are different from those that may be entrusted to the F-35.

Earlier, the F-15EX completed a successful missile test that brought the aircraft closer to carrying more air-to-air missiles than any other fighter in its inventory, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35, and the F-22 Raptor.

File Image: 187th wing of Alabama Air Guard received F-35

Additionally, the operational life of each F-15EX is predicted to be 20,000 hours, compared to the F-35’s 8,000 hours. This means the Air Force would need to buy three F-35As instead of just one to fly the same number of hours as an F-15EX.

Despite this, questions have been raised about why the Air Guard does not want a more capable, fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II aircraft. The answer to that is that the size of the F-35 line is limited, and the delivery of jets has been marred with inconsistencies amid soaring demand for exports.

Although ANG officials had stated earlier that they want to assign F-35s or F-15EXs to every ANG unit that currently flies the F-15, military watchers, as well as officials within the Air Guard, believe that the F-15EX would be the best choice to boost combat capability in the absence of the F-35s.

In January last year, the US Air Force (USAF) said it had discovered that the new F-15EX fighter jet outperformed expectations regarding the number and weight of munitions after two years of experimental testing. At that time, it was also highlighted that the F-15EX could perform the same bomber functions as the F-35 at a much lower operational cost.

However, realities have changed one year on. The F-15EX now costs more than an F-35 aircraft, which makes the Air Guard chief’s demand for F-15EX jets interesting.

Ballooning F-15EX Price Tag

Opponents of the F-15EX, both inside and outside the US Air Force, have pointed out that the all-weather multirole strike fighter is now more expensive than the fifth-generation chief’s fighter despite being intended as a less expensive substitute for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

For each aircraft in the program’s second production lot, the flyaway cost of the F-15EX Eagle II is roughly $90 million, which is almost $7.5 million more than the most recent pricing for an F-35A.

An Air Force spokesperson said in October 2023 that under the revised program, the cost of an F-15EX would begin at “approximately” $90 million for lot 2, increase to $97 million for lot 3, and then decrease to $94 million for lot 4.

File Image: First F-15EX at the Eglin Air Base of USAF

Following the announcement that the cost of its F-15EX Eagle II fighter aircraft would increase rather than decrease from Lot 2 to Lot 3, aerospace behemoth Boeing is looking for ways to keep costs under control. According to the company’s prediction, the “flyaway cost” per jet would be less than $80 million.

The first lot of the aircraft was originally agreed upon by the two sides in November 2022, with a flyaway price of $80.5 million for six jets, two of which were test aircraft already acquired. This means that the cost of the F-15EX would increase every year until the fourth lot is introduced.

A spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office, Russ Goemaere, provided Breaking Defense with a cost comparison, stating that the Air Force’s stealth fighter had an “average” flyaway cost of $82.5 million for the aircraft’s 15th, 16th, and 17th production lots, which are scheduled for delivery in 2023, 2024, and 2025.

“We’re looking at ‘how do we buy at scale?’ We’re looking at ‘how do we partner with suppliers for long-term affordability?’ We’re looking at ‘how do we control our costs in the factory, whether that’s kind of infrastructure cost or whether that’s efficiency that we can continue to build in?” Mark Sears, vice president of fighters at Boeing, told Breaking Defense.

US officials, however, have noted that the two aircraft have distinct roles, which would make an apples-to-apples comparison unfair and futile. However, given that the costs of the F-15EX are soaring, the US Air Guard’s chief’s decision seems to be based on the operability and easy integration of the fighter into the service besides its ability to carry more weapons and travel longer distances as compared to the stealth F-35A.