The U.S. Air Force officially accepted the first F-15EX from the Boeing Co. March 10 at the company’s St. Louis facility. The new fighter is a two-seat aircraft—though operable by a single pilot—with fly-by-wire flight controls, digital cockpit displays, and advanced avionics systems, to include the Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System, an electronic warfare upgrade also being fielded on F-15E Strike Eagle models.
“This is a big moment for the Air Force,” said Col. Sean Dorey, F-15EX program manager with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate, responsible for the acquisition, modernization and sustainment of the aircraft. “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. In addition, it’s capable of carrying hypersonic weapons, giving it a niche role in future near-peer conflicts.”
The US Air Force plans to acquire 144 F-15EXs from Boeing, to replace F-15C/D models and refresh the F-15 fleet. At an average age of more than 37 years, the F-15C/D fleet is fast approaching the end of its useful life and operating on the margins of structural integrity. The F‑15EX provides a cost-effective and expedient solution to refresh the F‑15C/D fleet and augment the F-15E fleet to meet National Defense Strategy capability and capacity requirements well into the 2040s, while preserving aircraft availability from significant impacts that service life extension and modernization programs would have on the F-15C/D fleet.
The process to acquire the F-15EX aircraft started in February of 2019, when Gen. David Goldfein, then-Air Force chief of staff, signed the F-15EX Rapid Fielding Requirement Document to address readiness issues with an aging F-15 fleet. From there, the directorate’s F-15 Program Office developed the acquisition strategy, awarded the contract, conducted design and verification reviews, and worked with Boeing to manufacture and test the aircraft in record time.
“It has taken a team effort to get to this point,” Dorey added. “I’m extremely proud of the team, to include members of the Propulsion Directorate, Simulators Program Office, Air Combat Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Materiel Command, Defense Contract Management Agency, the Air Staff, and our industry partners for achieving this first aircraft delivery milestone.”
“I commend the dedicated efforts of the entire team for bringing this platform online in record time and in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command. “With its open mission systems architecture and weapons capacity, the F-15EX will provide an outstanding capability for our nation for years to come.”
Following its acceptance, the new aircraft will be flown to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, for testing. A second F-15EX will be delivered to Eglin AFB by the end of April 2021. The other six Lot 1 aircraft will be delivered to Eglin AFB in fiscal year 2023 and will undergo operational testing.
To expedite the testing needed to declare the F-15EX ready for operations, the team will use previous testing data from F-15 foreign military sales variants and U.S.-only subsystems and Operational Flight Program software. Aircraft in Lots 2 and 3 are on track for delivery in FY 2024 and FY 2025 to Kingsley Field and Portland Air National Guard Bases, both in Oregon.
Currently, the 173rd Wing at Kingsley Field serves as the F-15C/D training school and will assume the same role for the F-15EX. The 142nd Wing at Portland will be the first operational unit to fly the aircraft.
F-15EX Advanced Eagle
The “new” F-15EX will replace the older F-15 C/Ds in the US Air Force inventory and will work alongside the more expensive F-35As. Eight F-15EX aircraft were approved in the 2020 budget and 12 were requested in the FY21 budget. The US Air Force plans to purchase a total of 76 F-15EX aircraft over the course of the five-year defense program, although future plans, according to Boeing, include procurement of up to 144 aircraft with a value of $23 billion.
Although US Air Force leaders said in 2019 that the service would prefer funds to purchase additional fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35, officials today say the F-15EX is the cheapest and most immediate way to upgrade the capabilities provided by older F-15C/D fleets and will be ready to fight as soon as it comes off the assembly line.
The most significant difference between the F-15EX and the legacy F-15 lies in its Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture. The OMS architecture will allow the rapid introduction of the latest aviation technologies. The F-15EX is a two-seater aircraft and will have fly-by-wire flight controls, a new Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System electronic warfare system, advanced pilot systems, as well as the latest mission systems and software features available for the legacy F-15s. With this technological architecture the F-15EX is designed to evolve from day one.