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Op-Ed: Addressing the Air Force’s plane shortage must be priority for Congress

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle flies over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. (Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force)
February 21, 2019

The U.S. Air Force has a problem. The average age of its fleet is 28 years. Many of its pilots are younger than that. Additionally, because of the aging fleet, the impacts on squadron size and readiness are becoming more obvious every day. Aging planes require more maintenance and spend more time in maintenance hangers and as a result, they are not ready and available to defend or deter. This costs money and it weakens our defensive capabilities. Air power is key to America’s ability to defend itself and deter aggression. So we cannot simply ignore this problem.

The best solution to the shortage problem is to phase out the Air Force’s oldest F-15s with a new, upgraded and high-tech variant — the F-15X. To the casual onlooker, an F-15X looks a lot like current F-15s. But the truth is it is a new, high-tech plane that has been redesigned from the ground up. It has a new amazing 20,000-hour airframe, the latest improved radars and sensors, the latest high-tech cockpit and data links, and the most recent electronic warfare systems and weapons. But that is not all — it can carry more than three times more missiles and bombs than the F-35, which is an important capability. Perhaps this is why the Air Force recently announced that it would like to buy 80 F-15Xs over the next several years. 

No one is arguing that the F-35 isn’t needed or that we shouldn’t continue to obtain more of them. But if you’re serious about the plane shortage problem, then buying a brand-new, updated and upgraded F-15X is the perfect solution. When the Air Force inquired about the new F-15X’s capabilities to address its shortage problem, it concluded that the new F-15X did more than even the Air Force had expected or hoped for, and its cost both to buy and to own and operate was surprising low. And because it is a fully developed and currently in production plane, it is available now – not in five years. So not only would our pilots be safer, but they would have a far more capable plane with which to defend America, and the taxpayer would be protected, as well.

The truth is the Air Force flies a mix of fighter jets: F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, F-22s and F-35s. While the F-35 is the newest fighter in the fleet, it is not the only fighter we need. And it isn’t even always the best plane for the the job. The Air Force has a lot of different missions to perform. Those missions require different strengths and capabilities. And while the F-35 is a highly capable fighter, other planes can do things that an F-35 cannot do. Some of the special things the F-15X can do that would advantage our war fighters include the ability to deliver hypersonic weapons, and the stunning payload capacity that allows the F-15X to carry more than three times the payload of bombs or missiles as compared to the F-35. This is precisely why having different planes with different strengths and capabilities is so important. Imagine if the only tool in your toolbox was a screwdriver; even if it is the best screwdriver ever made, you would be limited without access to wrenches, pliers, hammers, drills and saws. The truth is, a robust defense requires a variety of tools.

Some members of Congress have told President Donald Trump to maintain his commitment to the F-35 — as if this is about one or the other. While the F-35 is one of those tools, the same is true for the F-15X. The F-35 and the F-15X are not in competition with each other — they are complimentary. The Air Force has made this point itself and believes in the F-35, while at the same time realizing that it also needs a full compliment of the new, high-tech F-15X.

From a readiness standpoint, switching out old F-15 squadrons with the new F-15X would be a seamless conversion. Because maintenance facilities, hangers and supply chains would not need to be changed, and pilots would only need brief training with the new electronics systems, these conversions could take place immediately and without any loss of readiness. Whereas if the squadron were to switch to an unfamiliar plane, everything from hangers, maintenance facilities and supply chains would have to be updated. This could take two years or more for each unit. Thus, during the conversion to a new plane, the entire squadron would not be available or ready. But converting old F-15 squadrons to the new and improved F-15X gives our military the advantages of a new, high-tech fighter jet without any of the costs or delays that would exacerbate the readiness problem.

So if you’re trying to address a severe shortage, obtaining F-15Xs that are available immediately is a good solution. That they are available at a low cost makes it an even better solution.

The bottom line is simple: Congress must appropriate the funds needed for the new F-15X. The F-15X and the F-35 would form the backbone of a highly capable Air Force fleet well into the future.

George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom, an educational foundation founded by former United States Sen. Malcolm Wallop that promotes peace through strength and a strong national defense.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected].