The U.S. Air Force Is Buying New F-15s After All

The F-15X will complement the F-22 and F-35 in tomorrow's aerial battlefields.

USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle flying enroute above a layer of clouds with a full load of bombs
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The U.S. Air Force will go ahead and buy brand-new F-15s even as it purchases large numbers of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Updated with the latest technology, the F-15X can carry nearly two dozen air-to-air missiles and will likely work together with stealth jets to take on fleets of enemy fighters.

An at Bloomberg has revealed that the USAF will request eight F-15X fighters in its budget. The service plans to buy 80 fighters over five years. That's enough to fit out a wing of 72 aircraft, divided into three squadrons of 24 planes each, with eight spares. That's just the five-year projection, though, and the service may buy additional fighters beyond 2025.

The F-15X will come in two versions, a single-seat F-15CX and a twin-seat F-15EX. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, other than crew size the . Here's a Boeing promotional video for the F-15X, also known as Advanced Eagle.

F-15X is a thoroughly modern update of the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter first introduced in the 1970s. Most of the updates it has are already flying in F-15s produced for other countries, with research and development already paid for by nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These include strengthened airframes for increased maneuverability and airframe life span, giving the advanced fighter an even greater dogfighting capability over the original F-15 and an impressive airframe life span of 20,000 hours.

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.

One thing the F-15X doesn’t have is stealth capability, at least to the extent of new or new-ish aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35. The F-15 airframe was designed before stealth became a thing, and there’s not much, other than using radar-absorbing coatings, that can be done to retrofit a reduced radar signature. So, instead of being hard to spot, the F-15X will be armed to the teeth. The plane will use new AMBER missile racks to nearly triple the aircraft’s air-to-air missile capability, from 8 to 22.

An F-15C Eagle aircraft banks into a turn during a flight
An F-15C fighter with a typical F-15 air superiority loadout of 4 AIM-9 Sidewinder and 4 AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. The F-15CX will carry nearly three times as many air-to-air missiles.
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Why does the Air Force want to buy a better version of an older non-stealth fighter when it's already got plenty of F-35s on the way? The running theory is that the F-15X will complement the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the air combat mission. The F-22 and F-35 can carry only six and four air-to-air missiles respectively, tucked away in internal weapons bays. Both jets can tack on external pylons to carry more weapons, but doing so would ruin their carefully designed stealth profiles. In combat, the Air Force could pair an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with an F-15X, with the F-35 remaining hidden from enemy sensors and quietly marking targets for the F-15X to kill. With up to 22 missiles on the F-15X, this combination could take out a lot of enemy aircraft before running out of ammunition.

Another theoretical mission for the F-15X would be the suppression of enemy air defenses. Such units are specifically trained and equipped to hunt down air-defense systems on the ground, identifying them and targeting them with radar-homing missiles. Currently, this mission is assigned to single-seat F-16 fighters. A two-seat aircraft with plenty of room for electronic warfare pods and munitions racks—and air-to-air missiles in case enemy fighters come calling—would make for a great "Wild Weasel," as these planes are frequently called.

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A U.S. Air Force F-35A performing over Lake Michigan, August 2018.
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Supporters say the F-15X is meant to complement, not replace, the F-35. The lack of stealth makes it pretty clear the F-15X can never replace a stealthy fighter, but it can make stealth fighters better by acting as a flying magazine for jets that can only carry a limited number of missiles. At $80 million the F-15X is a relatively inexpensive way to triple or even quadruple the firepower of a pair of USAF fighter jets.

Detractors counter that the F-15X takes funding away from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Although the Air Force plans to keep buying the same number of F-35s as it did before, those opposing the F-15X buy say that the new money could be used for more F-35s. Detractors argue that, given the increasingly sophisticated air and ground threats to aircraft, all new aircraft should be stealth aircraft.

The F-15X looks to be a “go,” but a lot can happen in five years. If the defense budget remains flat or begins to contract over the next two years, buying a new fighter could go out the window, especially if only 80 aircraft are planned.

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