The F-15 Eagle, arguably the most successful fighter jet of the modern age, could be in for an early retirement with the US Air Force thanks to skyrocketing upgrade and refurbishment costs.
In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force and Air National Guard brass informed the panel that a plan was recently formed to retire and replace the F-15C/D variant of the Eagle far ahead of schedule by a matter of decades, though no decision had been made on that plan. While the Air Force did plan to keep the Eagle flying till 2040 through a $4 billion upgrade, it was recently determined that a further $8 billion would need to be invested in refurbishing the fuselages of these Eagles, driving up the costs of retaining the F-15C/D even higher than originally expected — presenting what seems to be the final nail the Eagle's eventual coffin.
So, what will the Air Force likely do to replace this 40-year-old wonder jet?
The Air Force had at first planned to replace the F-15 with the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, but successive cuts to the Raptor program left the branch with only 187 fighters, a substantially lower quantity than the planned buy of around 700. This forced the decision to keep the Eagles in service longer, and thus, the aforementioned investment of over $4 billion was made towards upgrading all combat coded F-15C/Ds with new radars, networking systems, and avionics to keep these fighters in service up till around 2040, when it would be replaced with a newer sixth-generation fighter, also superseding the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Once the F-15 gets pulled by the mid-2020s, the Air Force claims it already has a solution to replace what was once a bastion of American air power.
This solution comes in the form of enhancing F-16 Fighting Falcons with new radars from Northrop Grumman, and networking systems to take over the Eagle's role in North American air defense, at least in the interim until the Air Force begins and completes its sixth-generation fighter project, which will bring about an even more capable air superiority fighter replacement for both the F-22 and the F-15.
The Air Force has already begun extending the lives of its F-16s till 2048, through a fleet-wide Service Life Extension Program that will add an extra 4,000 flight hours to its Fighting Falcons. Air Force leadership has also advocated buying more fighters, namely the F-35A Lightning II, faster, so that when the hammer does eventually drop on the Eagle, the branch's fighter fleet won't be left undersized and vulnerable.
Even with upgrades, however, the F-16 still has some very big boots to fill.
The F-15 was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, meaning it was built to excel at shooting other aircraft down; all other mission types, like performing air-to-ground strikes, were secondary to its main tasking. To perform in this role, the Eagle was given stellar range, sizable weapons carriage, fantastic speed (over two and a half times the speed of sound), and a high operational ceiling. Conversely, the F-16 was designed as a low-cost alternative to the F-15, able to operate in a variety of roles, though decidedly not as well as the F-15 could with the air-to-air mission. Its combat range, weapons load and speed fall short of the standard set by the Eagle. Regardless, the Air Force still believes that the F-16 will be the best interim solution until the 6th generation fighter is fielded.
The USAF's most decorated F-16 pilot, Dan Hampton, doesn't disagree with these plans. In an interview with The War Zone, Hampton argues that though the F-16 lacks the weapons payload that the F-15 possesses, advances in missile guidance and homing make carrying more air-to-air weaponry a moot point, as pilots would likely hit their mark with the first or second shot, instead of having to fire off a salvo of missiles. Hampton adds that the F-16's versatility in being able to perform a diverse array of missions makes it more suitable for long-term upgrades to retain it over the Eagle. Whether or not this will actually work out the way the Air Force hopes it will is anybody's guess.