I cannot imaging why Lockheed-Martin would be worried at the prospect of the US Air Force making a purchase of an aircraft that is cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, flies farther, carries more, can have a back-seater who can handle things like SEAD and jamming, and has been continuously modernized over the years because of foreign sales.
A full month before the scheduled rollout of the Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget request, Boeing’s F-15X has provoked a fierce intellectual clash over the future of U.S. airpower strategy and priorities.
Advocates of the U.S. Air Force’s current plan to resume F-15 orders after a 19-year hiatus say it is an overdue response to an urgent requirement for quickly and affordably recapitalizing an aging air superiority fleet, while at the same time adding a comparatively flexible weapon system that can be adapted in the future to play a host of new roles, including perhaps electronic attack.
But critics see wasteful spending on the latest version of a fighter originally designed in the late-1960s, at the expense of buying faster and what they assert are more relevant Lockheed Martin F-35As. Some critics also invoke the prospect of the F-15X causing an acquisition “death spiral” for another advanced stealth aircraft, snaring the Air Force’s program of record to buy 1,763 F-35As in the same budgetary trap that sharply curtailed original plans to order 132 Northrop Grumman B-2A bombers and 750 Lockheed Martin F-22s.
The debate has placed Lockheed Martin in an awkward position. Although Lockheed executives generally support more spending on F-35 production, they also seem unwilling to contradict Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, who has stated that F-15X funding won’t come at the expense of planned F-35 purchases. It is a point that CEO Marillyn Hewson emphasized on the fourth-quarter earnings call in late January.
The Air Force is interested in buying a single-seat F-15CX and twin-seat F-15EX, the source says. Except for a two-place canopy and second cockpit in the F-15EX, both Air Force models would be identical.
The configuration is defined by the Air Force’s demand to limit costs, especially for nonrecurring engineering. So the F-15X models are based exclusively on already fielded technology, including strengthened wings and large area displays funded by the Qatari Air Force, plus conformal fuel tanks, a digital fly-by-wire control system, APG-82 active, electronically scanned array radar and the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) introduced by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The U.S. Air Force also is integrating the APG-82 radar on F-15Cs and F-15Es.
For example, the combination of a strengthened wing and fly-by-wire flight controls expand the flight envelope, yielding a dogfight performance somewhere between the raw power offered by the F-15C and the nimble agility at high angles of attack of the F-22.
Other important details involve the weapons options. The Saudi air force has integrated the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) on the F-15SA, so that becomes a new option for the Air Force fleet. The combination of the AGM-88, EPAWSS and the F-15’s inherent ability to generate large amounts of electrical power create intriguing possibilities. The Air Force retired its last tactical escort jamming platform in 1997, but the Navy has continued to perform the mission of jamming air defense radars with the Boeing EA-18G. The idea of a radar-jamming and -suppressing “Wild Weasel” version of an F-15EX could create a long-term role for the two-seater, operating alongside strike packages of F-35As.
I don’t think that this will go anywhere, Lockheed-Martin has meticulously spread subcontractors around crucial Congressional districts, and even if it outperforms the F-35 in 90+% of conflict scenarios.
Still, this promises to be entertaining.