The Department of Defense made waves recently by announcing it will update the F-15 platform, to the new F-15X planes. Pentagon authorities reportedly want to purchase 80 updated versions of the famous fighters over the next five years, beginning with eight to twelve planes in FY20. Congress should grant funding for the F-15X, to preserve every possible option, contain costs, and to modernize the planes our pilots already know how to fly.
The Air Force initially resisted the call, stating a preference for more of the latest high-tech F-35s. In February, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein was asked specifically about whether the Air Force wanted the F-15X. His answer was coy: “We want to buy new airplanes.” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson went a step further. “We want to buy 72 new aircraft a year.”
The Importance of ‘Sustainment Costs’
Significant Air Force voices have echoed the call for the F-15X, however, pointing out the necessity of a diverse mix of fighters, and the lower costs associated with the F-15X. Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of the Air Combat Command, told a roundtable at the Air Force Association that cost considerations included more than purchase price. The sustainment costs are far lower for the F-15X than for the F-35.
“There’s more to think about than just the acquisition cost. There’s the cost to operate the airplane over time. There’s the cost to transition at the installations where the airplanes are—does it require new military construction, does it require extensive retraining of the people and then how long does it take?” he said. “We’re pretty confident to say that we can go cheaper getting 72 airplanes with a mix of fifth and fourth gen than we did if we did all fifth gen.”
The Planes They Know
Most of the F-15X planes will be deployed at Air National Guard bases, to replace the aging F-15C and D fighters. The pilots are trained and ready to use the F-15, and adapting to the new version will take little adjustment. Flying the F-35 will require years of training, and will be restricted largely to new, younger pilots. Meanwhile, the F-15 will be part of the Air Force arsenal well into the next two decades.
Chief of Staff Gen. Goldfein spoke in a recent interview with Defense News about the air war platforms of the future. He is a clear supporter of the F-35, but he also believes strongly in the F-15. “There are four weapons systems that we have to fly into the 2030s” – the F-35, A-10, F-15, and F-16. But “the F-15C is not going to make it.”
“It’s an old airplane and getting older. It’s performed brilliantly, but the cost curves into a point where you’re spending so much money. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven an old car that dies in thousand-dollar increments. I have. It’s really painful. We have got to refresh the F-15C fleet because I can’t afford to not have that capacity to do the jobs and the missions right.”
If money were no object, the chief of staff would be delighted to focus solely on the newest possible planes. However, he said, “You’ve got to buy 72 aircraft a year. If we had the money, those would be 72 F-35s, but we’ve got to look at this from a cross-business case. The F-15 will never be the F-35. But I need an asset.”
The Pentagon must prepare immediately to face the possibility of several simultaneous regional conflicts. As it does so, our fighters will need the maximum possible flexibility of response. They must have modern planes that reservists and national guardsmen already know how to fly. Purchasing both the F-15X and the F-35 will give the Air Force the flexibility they need. Congress should approve the budget the Department of Defense is requesting.