To compete and win against near-peer competitors such as Russia and China, the United States Air Force needs both fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. That simple reality has generated a contentious debate this year, with Air Force leaders defending the need to buy new F-15EX aircraft to maintain a diverse mix of capabilities across the fighter fleet.
As the former commander of Air Combat Command, I dealt every day with another simple reality: Today’s Air Force is smaller than it has been at any time in our history. I witnessed the shrinking of our fighter force, the aging of our aircraft and the poor decisions and troubled programs that exacerbated those challenges.
The result is that today, the Air Force is fighting to simultaneously maintain fighter capacity while modernizing fighter capabilities. That fight is manifesting this year in the decision to buy the new advanced F-15EX for two simple reasons.
First, due to its age and heavy use, the F-15C fleet has to retire sooner than any of our other fourth-generation aircraft. The Air Force is facing the loss of more than 230 F-15Cs in a matter of years.
Second, the F-15 is unique in that it flies farther, loiters longer and carries more weapons than any other fighter in the Air Force. In other words, the F-15 is critical to Air Force capacity not just in terms of the number of aircraft available but also in the number of missions and individual strikes it can carry out relative to other platforms. As a result, if the Air Force wanted to replace F-15s with another aircraft without losing capacity, it would have to buy many more individual airplanes at a much higher cost.
That is the simple math that drove the decision of our military leaders to provide the Air Force with added funding this year to purchase new advanced F-15s. That additional funding enabled the Air Force to solve its F-15C problem while simultaneously adding more than a billion dollars this year to the fifth generation F-35.
These two aircraft, the F-15EX and the F-35A, are a formidable team against a near-peer competitor. The F-35A brings penetrating stealth and data fusion to quarterback the fight. The F-15EX brings the Air Force fighter fleet’s most advanced electronic warfare system, standoff capabilities including hypersonic weapons and a massive weapons carriage.
Allowing the Air Force to acquire the F-15EX without slowing or curtailing F-35 procurement will yield a larger, more potent fleet and can do so in the near term.
At a time when funding for pilot training and military construction is continually making headlines, advanced F-15s can enter service within two years and do so with no infrastructure costs, minimal retraining, and using equipment and spare parts already on the shelves.
Protecting our national security requires a robust, complementary fighter fleet with the capabilities and capacity to dominate our adversaries. Our Air Force leaders have the right plan with the F-15EX to maintain our dominance in global air superiority.
Mike Hostage is a retired United States Air Force four-star general who served as the commander of the Air Combat Command.
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