SOFREP has been covering the activities in the Air Force over the past few months, and with the striking events surrounding F-35s, it seems that the US Air Force and other military branches have started looking for an alternative to this powerhouse—the F-15 EX Eagle II.

Earlier this year, the US Air Force’s newest/old fighter jet, the F-15EX, had undergone a series of test flights. It fired its first missile in February during an air-to-air weapons system evaluation program. The 40th Flight Test Squadron aircrew fired the missiles while pursuing a BQM-167 aerial target drone.

“During the flight, the F-15EX detected the drone using onboard sensors, acquired a weapons-quality track, and launched the missile at the target. After tracking the missile’s release and flight toward the BQM-167, the shot was determined a WSEP success, at which point the missile flight was terminated,” according to the release.

The success was “an end-to-end verification of the entire weapons system, which will pave the way for more complex missile shots in the future,” said Colton Myers, F-15EX test project manager.

During this testing, a large part of the Combat Archer also provided first-hand, live-fire experience, and the pilots are glad to finally be able to test this new beast.

“I am humbled to have the opportunity to fire the first weapon, but the bigger success is the verification of the F-15EX capability to live-fire a missile,” said test pilot Maj. Benjamin Naumann. “This shot is another important step towards fielding the aircraft to combat units.”

An air-to-air front view of two F-15E Eagle aircraft of the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron. (Source: The U.S. National Archives/getarchive)

The F-15EX is a powerful two-seater aircraft that can be flown by a single pilot. It has fly-by-wire features, advanced avionics, and digital cockpit displays. It has an increased payload capacity of 30,000 pounds of air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground munitions. Since it took a backseat to the F-35s, the military has only used the F-15EX for ground-attack missions in post-9/11 conflicts, according to reports.

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F-15EX program manager for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate Col. Sean Dorey said having F-15EXs was a “big moment for the Air Force.”

“With its large weapons capacity, digital backbone, and open architecture, the F-15EX will be a key element of our tactical fighter fleet and complement 5th-generation assets,” he said, adding that “it’s capable of carrying hypersonic weapons, giving it a niche role in future near-peer conflicts.”

Even BAE Systems program director Bridget McDermott lauded the F-15s, saying these will become extremely important in the long-term strategy for the entire Air Force fleet.

“These aircraft bring speed, maneuverability, and payload to the fight,” she said.

Even though the F-15s are part of USAF’s legacy aircraft, the newer versions are being prepped as a supplement to F-35s and the F-22 Raptor. Moreover, the F-15EXs offer a different skillset by making up in “raw performance and weapons loadout what it lacks in stealth.” The F-15EXs are also more versatile when it comes to blending in cross-division deployment (with the US National Guard, for example). So, if the F-15s can compete with the erratic F-35s, why is the Air Force still pushing billions towards Lockheed Martin when this legacy, Boeing-made classic actually performs better?

Retired USAF Commander and Combat Fighter Pilot John Venable wrote that the Air Force might be beginning to acknowledge the gaps in F-35s. The 2023 budget request showed a dip in F-35 procurement and an increase in F-15EXs. However, Venable adds that there is a glaring mathematical issue for those who claim that the F-35s are costlier than F-15EXs.

It turns out that the “flyaway cost” for an F-35 is $85.8 million. Though this looks like a hefty price, if we account for the F-15EXs $97.9 million, the former figure pales in comparison. And since the F-15EX s still has the Eagle Passive Active Warning and Survivability System (EPAWSS), the cost is added by $13.6 million.

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“The “Gross Weapons Systems” cost includes the “flyaway cost” and the per-jet share of the cost of unique equipment, simulators, and standing-up depots needed to support the aircraft. The gross weapons system cost of an F-35A adds up to $98.2 million in FY22.

“The defense department calculates the F-15EX at $110 million. But that does NOT include the cost for simulators, EPAWSS, or the targeting and IRST pods required for combat. Adding in those costs brings the gross weapons systems cost for the F-15EX to $136.7 million — $38.5 million or 39 percent more than a fully loaded F-35A.

Though it is a more expensive aircraft to buy initially, the F-15EX does enjoy a significant advantage over the F-35 in operating costs and service life.   The F-35 may only have a service life of 2,000 flight hours over about 10 years of flight operations, while the F-15EX is said to be capable of 20,000 hours of flight operations at half the cost of maintenance for those hours compared to the F-35. Those are very big numbers in terms of service life and operating costs. While it is nice to have the latest, most stealthy thing in the skies, you still have to pay for upkeep and some miracles of aviation technology can just break the bank in terms of operational costs.

However, as the cost for the legacy and the “beast” F-35 gets explored, we have to consider the recent mishaps and the reported nations pulling out of the F-35 acquisition deal (yes, this includes the US). Moreover, just recently, SOFREP also reported another issue (aside from the seat ejection concern that forced the Air Force to ground their F-35 fleet for weeks) concerning a Chinese-made alloy used in the new F-35s.

So, if USAF is planning for longevity, it makes more sense to invest in the tried and tested F-15EXs and upgrade internally instead of dealing with surprises from Lockheed Martin and endlessly focusing on repairs.

Lastly, it is not just the USAF who’s looking at the F-15EXs. The US National Guard Bureau has also proposed to bed down a squadron of F-15Ex jets to be stationed at two of the three Air National Guard’s alternative locations (Barnes ANG Base, Fresno ANG Base, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, and NAS Lemoore). Though the F-35As were still included in the proposal, only one alternative location was assigned to it.

Are we seeing the demise of F-35s? Is this the comeback of the classic F-15EXs?