Even among fans of Boeing’s F-15EX initiative, you won’t find anyone who will contend that the F-15 is a superior aircraft to Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter. On paper, a new F-15 does offer a number of advantages over the stealth F-35—higher top speed, lower operating costs, larger payload capacity, and greater operational range—but in a fight, the F-35’s low observability and data fusion capabilities make it an apples and oranges comparison. The F-35 is, in many ways, the future of American air power. Purchasing new F-15s then, one could contend, is a step backward.
So if there’s no real debate regarding which is the better fighter, why would the Air Force allocate more than a billion dollars to the purchase of a new batch of F-15s in 2020? The explanations the American people have gotten from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have varied over the past few months, and often seem less than satisfying.
“One of the considerations was the diversity of the industrial base,” a defense official told journalists at the Pentagon last Friday. “Maintaining a diverse industrial base is in the best interest of the Department of Defense. The more diversity, the more competition…and the better prices we have.”
It’s easy to see why that justification for a multi-billion dollar defense initiative doesn’t quite sit right with many. The DOD is in the business of winning wars, not providing corporate handouts to keep contractors in business during the era of the F-35. If the Pentagon believes the F-35 is the better aircraft for the conflicts America may soon find itself in, why isn’t it throwing that $1.1 billion allocated for the F-15EX in 2020 at securing another 10 F-35s instead?