May 30, 2019

F-15EX and F-35A: The Future of American Air Superiority

By Lt Col Brad Orgeron

When the Air Force chief of staff and secretary confirmed that the service’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 would include money for F-15EX aircraft, they kicked off a massive debate among airpower strategists and defense planners. Many arguments against the F-15EX focus on the need to invest in fifth-generation aircraft, specifically highlighting the F-35A, and the advantages of stealth and advanced sensors to counter Russian and Chinese threats. On the other hand, Air Force and Department of Defense leaders have focused on the need to maintain fighter capacity and keep costs down.

While interesting, the conversation isn’t addressing the deeper problem: the deterioration of the Air Force’s F-15C fleet and potential gaps in fulfilling key air superiority missions. This should not be a discussion specifically about whether the F-15EX or the F-35A is a better weapon system. Rather, discussion should focus on how to best meet airpower demands given finite resources and an F-15C fleet well past its service life and in need of considerable investment to continue flying. The Air Force, Department of Defense, and Congress should not miss the opportunity to utilize the FY20 budget to invest in a solution.

This article outlines the need for dedicated air superiority fighter aircraft and explores four options to sustain this critical capability over the next 20 years. Ultimately, new aircraft will return on investment by divesting the F-15C. The proper mix of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft will provide the most lethal and cost-effective force using the distinct advantages of each while guarding against inherent design weaknesses of either.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force/Samuel King Jr.

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