It’s clear that advanced and stealthy airframes like the fifth generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are the way of the future, but it will still be decades before the last of the fourth generation fighters makes their way into retirement. The Navy, aware that their carrier fleet will likely one day be comprised largely of F-35s, is moving forward with plans to upgrade their fleet over Super Hornets into a Block III variant — a refresh on par with the previous one that added “super” to their name, prompting some to refer to these upgraded planes (rather cheekily) as Super Duper Hornets. Call them what you will, it’s clear that the Navy still has a pressing need for capable fourth-generation fighters, and the Air Force is no different.

At one point, the F-22 Raptor, America’s first fifth-generation fighter, was slated to serve as the replacement for the aging F-15 as America’s premier air superiority fighter. The aircraft itself certainly seemed worthy of the challenge, offering stealth, speed, and maneuverability in a single package that many experts contend is the best dogfighting platform on the planet — but a combination of its high price tag and politics saw the program terminated before Lockheed Martin could produce enough of the new aircraft to replace the existing fleets of F-15 Eagles and F-15 Strike Eagles (which serve as multi-role aircraft). With fewer than 180 operational F-22s in service and no more coming, the Air Force finds itself with a problem: how can they make their existing fleet of fourth generation fighters dominant in near-peer level conflict against a nation that has its own fifth-generation aircraft?

Boeing, who is already responsible for the Block III upgrades for the Super Hornet, believes their upgrade strategy could also help to keep the F-15 relevant as an air superiority platform even in the age of stealthy competitors like the J-20 — but unlike the Super Hornet upgrade plans, the F-15 strategy includes slapping lots more missiles to the plane. The F-22 Raptor carries its missiles via internal weapons bay in order to ensure the weapons don’t affect the aircraft’s radar signature. Likewise with the F-35 — but decidedly un-stealthy F-15 doesn’t have any such constraints. So while the F-22 can carry as many as four Sidewinder missiles and six AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) and the F-35 can just carry four AMRAAMs, the upgraded F-15 would take to the skies with a whopping 24 air to air missiles, offering more than six times the anti-aircraft firepower carried by the future workhorse of the fleet — the F-35.

This new loadout would likely come with a transition in the ways in which F-15s are employed when fully equipped, serving as something similar to the “arsenal plane” concept. The upgraded F-15s would fly behind a wave of stealthy fifth-generation fighters and use the targeting data acquired by those advanced aircraft to launch their missiles at far away targets. In effect, a missile laden F-15 could serve as a magazine for advancing F-22s that are acquiring targets, relaying the data and letting the F-15 expend its huge supply of missiles as they advanced toward objectives.

An F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, 433 Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. fly in formation over the Grand Canyon, on 16 July 2010. | USAF

Boeing has proposed not only upgrading existing F-15s with this as well as slew of other capabilities but even producing new ones for purchase — however, Lockheed Martin recently announced that the per unit price of the F-35 is expected to drop to around $85 million in the coming years, finally making it competitive with newly acquired legacy platforms like a new run of F-15s — feasibly making the purchase of fourth generation fighters economically unjustifiable. However, the massive costs associated with running the F-35 (which the Air Force says needs to be reduced by as much as 48% or they’ll have to reduce their total order for the aircraft) an upgraded F-15 could still represent significant cost savings over the lifespan of the platform.

The Air Force has not yet commented on whether or not they’re considering Boeing’s proposal — but as the Block III upgrades on the Super Hornet commence, one can imagine they’re at least putting some thought to it.

Featured image: Air Force F-15 B-1B Lancer formation. | MaxPixel

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