Not Your Father's F-15
At first glance, the fighter jet that touched down at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, March 11 looked like the hundreds of other F-15s in the Air Force fleet.
But this plane, which made its maiden voyage a little more than a month before, represents the future for several Air National Guard flying wings.
The F-15EX is a modern cousin to the aging F-15C/D Eagles operated by six Air Guard units. The first of those to receive the new aircraft will be Oregon’s 173rd Fighter Wing, home of the Air Force’s only F-15 schoolhouse.
The 173rd, based at Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base in Klamath Falls, Oregon, will begin their transition to the new plane in 2024. Their sister unit in the Oregon Air Guard, the 142nd Fighter Wing based at Portland Air National Guard Base, will receive their first F-15EX in 2025 and is set to be the Air Force’s first operational F-15EX unit.
The Air Force has ordered 144 of the new fighters. The first lot of eight aircraft are being delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, home of the Air Force’s 96th Test Wing, where they will undergo testing needed before the aircraft can be declared ready for real-world operations.
The two Oregon wings were identified by the Air Force last year. Both say they are looking forward to the new aircraft, which is a two-seat fighter with U.S.-only capabilities. It features increased payload capacity, fly-by-wire controls, a digital cockpit and modernized sensors, radars and electronic-warfare capabilities.
It also has an Open Mission System architecture that will enable rapid insertion of the latest aircraft technologies.
“Being selected as the F-15EX formal training unit is an outstanding mission for the 173rd Fighter Wing,” says Col. Jeff Edwards, the wing commander. “Kingsley is simply an outstanding place to train pilots. The community support is just incredible, and we have some of the best training airspace anywhere.”
Meanwhile, a four-person conversion team at Portland Air National Guard Base is already assessing what the unit must do to prepare for the F-15EX. The goal, officials say, is to be able to convert as quickly as possible.
According to Boeing, which manufactures the F-15EX, conversion should be easy for the Guard’s F-15C/D units.
The new aircraft requires minimal retraining for pilots and maintainers,uses existing infrastructure and shares 90% of the same support equipment and about 80% of the same spare parts with the current F-15 fleet.
So while many wings can take years to convert to new aircraft, existing F-15C/D units should be able to measure their transition in weeks or months, both the Air Force and Boeing say.
The Air Force chose the F-15EX to help refresh its aging fighter fleet. While some Air Guard units will receive the new planes, others will field the F-35A Lightning II, which is made by Lockheed Martin.
The two planes are not direct competitors, each designed with different strengths and capabilities. The F-35 has stealth, which will soon become essential in contested airspace, but the F-15 is faster and can carry more munitions. Air Force officials believe both have a place in modern warfare.
Each also represents a different end of the procurement spectrum. The F-35 has repeatedly come under fire for cost overruns. Meanwhile, the F-15EX was largely developed with more than $5 billion in foreign investments, most of it from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea in the decades since the United States bought its last new F-15.
The F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleet.
—Gen. Mike Holmes, former commander of Air Combat Command
THE F-15EX HAS ITS DETRACTORS. Some in the Air Guard are worried the plane could receive less future support if the majority of the fleet belongs to the Guard. The thinking is, the Air Force may not prioritize an aircraft for resources if it does not have a large footprint in the active component. And it wasn’t long that the service only had eyes for Fifth Generation, or stealth, fighters.
Air Force officials have tried to allay those fears.
“The F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleet,” said Gen. Mike Holmes, then-commander of Air Combat Command, last year. “The F-15EX is ready to fight as soon as it comes off the line.”
Ironically, the F-15EX was born, in part, out of a near-tragedy involving an Air Guard plane in Missouri more than a decade ago.
On Nov. 2, 2007, four F-15Cs belonging to the Missouri Air Guard’s 131st Fighter Wing were minutes into a routine training flight when the fighter flown by Maj. Stephen Stilwell broke in half due to a defective longeron.
The longeron is the 12-foot long aluminum beam that is an integral part of the fighter jet, holding the front and rear fuselage together. And on Stilwell’s plane, that beam was cracked and split mid-air. The pilot was able to eject and survived the crash with relatively minor injuries.
Following the incident, the Air Force grounded its entire F-15 fleet. Air Force and Boeing officials began to assess and make repairs to those aircraft. Meanwhile, the first of several years worth of tests began with a goal of an improved, longer-lasting fighter.
The result of those tests, and other technological improvements over the years, is a plane expected to last twice as long as the F-15C/D.
That’s good news for Air Guard maintainers currently tasked with keeping airworthy aircraft that are on average 37 years old and based on yesterday’s technology.
“Maintaining the F-15C has become difficult, and our people are wearing out,” says Lt. Col. Nathan Rice, unit conversion officer for the 142nd Fighter Wing.
So are the aircraft. The Air Guard’s F-15s have been taxed in the decades since they first entered the force. All but the schoolhouse unit in Klamath Falls, Oregon, are on call 24/7/365 to help protect the air sovereignty of the continental United States. Like the 142nd in Oregon, the other four Guard F-15 units are in coastal states: California, Florida, Louisiana and Massachusetts.
But F-15EX is not just an air sovereignty aircraft, say its proponents. It is capable of air-to-ground missions. And it can carry the new hypersonic weapons now in development. Those weapons are too large to fit in the weapons bays of the F-22 Raptor or F-35.
“The F-15EX is the most advanced version of the F-15 ever built, due in large part to its digital backbone,” said Lori Schneider, Boeing F-15EX program manager. “It’s unmatched range, price and best-in-class payload capacity make the F-15EX an attractive choice for the U.S. Air Force.”
The author can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].