Six months after winning the first order of new F-15 fighter jets from the U.S. Air Force in nearly 20 years, Boeing’s modernized version of an aircraft introduced a half-century ago took off for the first time from St. Louis-Lambert International Airport earlier this month.
The flight of the F-15EX Eagle marks a rapid program launch since Boeing executives first began preparing for the possibility of renewed U.S. orders about two years ago.
“At that time it was very much a dream in our eyes,” Prat Kumar, a Boeing vice president and program manager of F-15 programs, told the Post-Dispatch. “From that point to flying the first jet for the U.S. Air Force after a gap of 20 years, these are exciting times in Eagle country.”
Two of the new F-15EX fighters, assembled at Boeing’s sprawling north St. Louis County campus, are scheduled to be delivered to the Air Force by the end of March.
The F-15’s days had seemed numbered amid a shift from the U.S. Air Force to the modern F-35 stealth fighters built by Boeing rival Lockheed Martin. But in 2019, a surprise budget request from the Air Force called for dozens of updated F-15EX’s to replace aging 1980s-era F-15C’s.
“It’s a bit of a mystery how it got back in the budget,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at aviation research firm Teal Group.
In July, the Air Force awarded its first contract for the updated fighter, a $1.2 billion contract for eight jets. The budget Congress passed in December included funding for another 12, and U.S. military plans call for as many as 144 in coming years.
“That certainly keeps the line healthy and producing until the end of the decade,” Kumar said.
That assembly line has been sustained by foreign orders from Singapore, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia in the years since the U.S. military moved toward the next generation of fighter jets. Boeing is currently filling an order for 36 F-15s for the Arab Gulf nation of Qatar that, even without the U.S. orders, would have kept the line running through next year.
Boeing has boosted employment on the F-15 line to about 1,500 direct workers, Kumar said, up from about 1,100 two years ago, and adding about 100 in the last few months alone, as it ramps up to begin filling the U.S. Air Force order. Boeing employs nearly 16,000 people in the region, with about 12,100 in St. Louis County. Others are based out of a missile and munitions plant in St. Charles and a facility in Mascoutah.
The constant production of F-15s over the decades has allowed the company to keep adding modern computer, radar and other systems to the fighters. The F-15EX will be based on the version being made for Qatar, though with radar and other systems unique to the U.S.
But the future is uncertain.
The Biden administration could change procurement plans. The Air Force could cut orders. There’s talk of a revived F-16 program, built by Lockheed Martin, or even a brand-new sixth-generation fighter, Aboulafia said.
And for some members of Congress — especially Senators and representatives from Texas, where the F-35 is assembled — the F-15EX is a threat to F-35 orders.
Some Air Force officials say the renewed F-15 program is necessary to replace an aging fighter fleet, and is complimentary to the F-35 because it can carry a larger payload than the stealth fighter, according to the Congressional Research Service.
They may also see the F-15EX as a program that helps maintain Boeing’s St. Louis production facility as a critical component of the military-industrial base. Only Boeing’s St. Louis defense facility and Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, factory assemble fighter jets for the U.S. military.
Still, Aboulafia said, the bulk of Air Force leadership see the F-15 as a threat to F-35 funding.
“There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty in tactical aircraft procurement moving forward,” Aboulafia said. “This is getting muddy fast.”
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