The U.S. Department of the Air Force on Monday awarded Boeing a contract to supply eight F-15EX multi-role fighters. The contract, worth just under $1.2 billion, specifies the “design, development, integration, manufacturing, test, verification, certification, delivery, sustainment and modification of F-15EX aircraft, including spares, support equipment, training materials, technical data, and technical support.”
The award of the first F-15EX order to Boeing follows a $101.3 million contract issued on June 30 to General Electric to provide 19 F110-GE-129 engines for the eight aircraft, including three spares. The initial engine requirement was not competed with alternative engine provider Pratt & Whitney as the F-15QA Advanced Eagle (for Qatar) aircraft upon which the F-15EX is based is engineered solely for the F110 turbofan. However, in May the Air Force opened up follow-on engine supplies to competition.
Restarting F-15 production for the U.S. Air Force instead of increasing F-35 procurement has been the subject of considerable debate in recent times. General Mike Holmes, Air Combat Command commander, commented that: “The F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleets. The F-15EX is ready to fight as soon as it comes off the line.”
Funding for the first eight F-15EXs comes from the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, with another 12 requested for FY21. The Air Force plans to acquire 76 over the five-year Future Years Defense Program. An indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract with a ceiling of almost $23 billion for 200 aircraft is being announced as well, and Boeing understands that future requirements are likely to reach 144 aircraft. The Air Force bought the last of its current fleet 19 years ago when the final handful of F-15E Strike Eagles were acquired in the FY01 budget.
The first pair of F-15EXs is already at an advanced stage of construction inside Boeing’s St. Louis factory, with delivery scheduled for the first quarter of 2021. All eight aircraft from the initial batch are to be delivered by the end of 2023 and will be assigned to Eglin AFB in Florida for test and evaluation, with six aircraft being designated as trials aircraft. Some, if not all, of them will be returned to operational status at a later date. Subsequent operating locations will be selected to receive the type under the USAF’s Strategic Basing Process.
F-15EXs will replace the oldest F-15C/Ds in the inventory, which are nearing the end of their structural lives. Due to the commonality between the C/D models and the EX there are “minimal” transitional training and infrastructure changes required. “When delivered, we expect bases currently operating the F-15 to transition to the new EX platform in a matter of months versus years,” said Holmes.
The Air Force initially plans to operate them primarily as single-seaters in the air defense role, leaving the rear cockpit empty but available for growth and other missions, such as working with air vehicles in manned/unmanned teams. A decision was taken to use the two-seat F-15QA as the basis for the F-15EX to minimize delays in getting the aircraft into production.
F-15A and two-seat TF-15A Eagles first entered USAF service in January 1976, but the F-15EX is a very different beast to those aircraft. The type has undergone considerable development, especially in recent years, driven by the demands of the export market. The two-seat F-15EX features a high-speed fiber-optic backbone and an open mission systems architecture that permits rapid insertion of technology. It has an enhanced structure, APG-82 AESA radar, fly-by-wire flight control system that caters for greater load-carrying options, sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities, and advanced cockpit systems centered on wide-area screens in both cockpits. It is compatible with the Legion Pod infrared search and track system.
“The F-15EX’s digital backbone, open mission systems, and generous payload capacity fit well with our vision for future net-enabled warfare,” said Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “Continually upgrading systems, and how they share data across the Joint Force, is critical for defeating advanced threats.”
Prat Kumar, Boeing’s F-15 program manager, commented that “F-15EX brings together benefits of digital engineering, open mission systems, and agile software development to keep it affordable and upgradable for decades to come.”
The increased payload capacity is described by Boeing as “best in class” and includes additional underwing pylons that allow it to carry 12 air-to-air missiles compared with the F-15C's eight. For now, the Air Force is happy with this configuration, but if the aircraft is fitted with Boeing’s Advanced Missile and Bomb Ejector Rack (AMBER) that could increase weapon carriage to more than 20. Critically, the F-15EX can also carry large weapons on its centerline hardpoint, including hypersonic missiles, measuring up to 22 feet in length and weighing up to 7,000 pounds.