Despite warnings from some within the defense establishment and Congress, the U.S. Air Force has decided to buy as many as 80 brand-new, next-gen, upgraded F-15 fighter planes over the next five years to complement its F-22 and F-35 wings.
The upgraded F-15s will come in two versions — the single-seat F-15CX and the two-seat model F-15EX. According to officials, the new planes are capable of carrying much more ordnance including 12 air-to-air missiles and smart bombs, Popular Mechanics reports.
In addition, Boeing — the plane’s manufacturer — said the aircraft will come with what is arguably the fastest in-flight targeting computer in use today in any air force.
Bloomberg noted that 80 aircraft will be enough to outfit a wing of 72 fighters with eight spares. The wing would be divided into three 24-plane squadrons.
The F-15X is a completely upgraded fighter from the F-15 Eagle air superiority aircraft first introduced in the 1970s. According to one F-15X pilot featured in Boeing’s promotional video promoting the plane (see below), “This is not your daddy’s F-15.”
Popular Mechanics noted some of the fighter’s new features:
The F-15X will also include large flat panel displays for displaying aircraft information, conformal fuel tanks to give it a longer range, a digital fly-by-wire control system, a new APG-82 radar, and the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) for protection from air-to-air missiles.
What the aircraft doesn’t have, however, is stealth capabilities like its F-22 and F-35 cousins. And because the airframe was designed before stealth technology became available, other than coating the plane’s surface in radar-absorbing material there isn’t much else that can be done to make it less visible to enemy air defense radars.
But while the plane won’t be difficult to spot, it will be extremely well-armed to make up the difference. “The plane will use new AMBER missile racks to nearly triple the aircraft’s air-to-air missile capability, from 8 to 22,” Popular Mechanics reported.
As for why the Air Force would want to buy an upgraded version of a fourth-generation plane when it has more than enough F35s in the pipeline, service officials say that the F-15X series aircraft will serve to complement their fifth-gen fighters mostly by adding additional mission capabilities.
For one, the F-15X models carry substantially more firepower. The F-22 and the F-35 carry only six and four air-to-air missiles respectively, hidden away in internal bays to reduce radar signature. And while both fifth-gen planes can add external weapons pylons doing so would make them visible to radar and defeat their purpose of evading defenses to strike enemy installations without detection.
Also, theoretically the new F-15s could be used to suppress enemy air defenses ahead of any F-22s and F-35s sent in to strike other targets. Currently, this mission is assigned to single-seat F-16C model aircraft.
Critics say purchasing the new F-15X models takes needed funding away from buying more F-35s. They also argue that increasingly sophisticated air defense networks make stealth aircraft imperative.
But for now anyway, the F-15X purchases will go forward — at least until the Pentagon and the Trump administration changes their minds.