As a former member of the military who served in multi-branch operations, I understand the need for diversity when equipping our service members. Our Air Force should not be one dimensional. The current fight over procurement of the Air Force fighter; the F-15X, is an easy decision, because having diversity in the air fleet provides flexibility that current conditions require. As I well understand, different missions require different strengths, capabilities and tools.
Some lawmakers are pushing the F-35 fighter jet over the F-15X because of the fear of budgetary constraints in the future. Defense News reported on February 27, 2019, “Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force officials may be downplaying the prospect of an upcoming budget battle surrounding the F-15X and the F-35 fighter jets, but F-35 supporters in Congress and around the Capital Beltway are mounting an offensive against Boeing’s new F-15 variant.”
The report indicates that “all signs point to the Air Force unveiling its plan to buy a new version of the F-15 in its fiscal 2020 budget proposal, tentatively scheduled for release in mid-March. Though numbers have fluctuated, a Feb. 19 report from Bloomberg says the service plans to purchase eight F-15X planes in FY20, with an expected total buy of about 80 jets.” Right now the plan is for the Air Force to purchase both the F-35 and the F-15X. The F-15X is an upgrade to existing F-15s in service.
There is no real conflict between the Air Force purchasing both, yet some lawmakers worry that future budget constraints will pit the F-35 against the F-15X. The problem with this thinking is that a decision to go wholly to F-35s will give the Air Force a one-dimensional fighter jet when diversity may be required to combat emerging threats.
The case to move forward with the plan to purchase F-15s makes sense. George Landrith wrote in American Military News on Feb. 21, 2019, “the best solution to the shortage problem is to phase out the Air Force’s oldest F-15s with a new, upgraded and high-tech variant — the F-15X. To the casual onlooker, an F-15X looks a lot like current F-15s. But the truth is it is a new, high-tech plane that has been redesigned from the ground up.” Mr. Landrith argues that “No one is arguing that the F-35 isn’t needed or that we shouldn’t continue to obtain more of them. But if you’re serious about the plane shortage problem, then buying a brand-new, updated and upgraded F-15X is the perfect solution.” This is a cost effective and smart way to equip our armed forces.
He made the case that the new F-15X platform is a great fighter jet, having a variety of tools which will allow it to conduct missions that the F-35 is not capable of completing. Mr. Landrith concluded that “the truth is the Air Force flies a mix of fighter jets: F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, F-22s and F-35s. The F-35 is the newest fighter in the fleet, but not the only fighter we need.” Current conflicts asks the Air Force to perform many different missions. These require different technology and capabilities. While the F-35 has no peers among our adversaries, other American planes can do things that an F-35 cannot do. Many things the F-15X can do would give advantages our fighters on the ground. Including the ability to deliver hypersonic weapons, and the stunning payload capacity that allows the F-15X to carry more than three times the bombs or missiles as the F-35. The F-35 plainly has limitations that leaves a void for other jets to fill.
The F-35 has had problems with being over budget and being flight ready. According to Eric Tegler writing at Popular Mechanics on July 27, 2018, “the F-35 is still dogged by decisions like the one to build the plane using the strategy of ‘concurrency,’ or building the first planes before the experimental design was truly finalized. As of March, barely half the F-35s were flight-ready because many of the older ones needed to be brought up to spec.” The F-35 has had a long history of being delayed in deployment and Tegler points out “If the schedule holds, the F-35 will be baseline operational 18 years after it was selected over Boeing’s X-32, and 23 years after the program began. For over two decades, the F-35 has been the symbol of everything that’s wrong with mammoth defense contracts: behind schedule, over budget, and initially, over-sold.” With all the problems in deploying the F-35, it makes even more sense to stick with the tried-and-true and tested option of the F-15X to be in service and available for use.
There are legitimate criticisms and real problems with procuring only F-35 fighter jets while scrapping plans to replace F-15s with F-15Xs. The Air Force would be rendered one dimensional and less flexible in fighting emerging threats. Most importantly, America would be less safe.
• Phil Kiver is an Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) veteran.