US Air Force considers dumping undefeated fighter jet

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A 1980s-era combat jet that has long been hailed as the most successful dog-fighting aircraft in US history may have finally met its match.

A 1980s-era combat jet that has long been hailed as the most successful dog-fighting aircraft in US history may have finally met its match.

It is not an enemy plane that is threatening to end the F-15 Eagle’s 40-year reign as king of the skies, but rather the US Air Force’s latest cost-cutting efforts.

Air Force generals floated the idea of retiring hundreds of F-15s during a hearing before the House Armed Services subcommittee last week, pitching a plan that included replacing the current fleet of battle-tested fighters with an upgraded version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The plan would include replacing 236 F-15C and D models by dipping into the Air Force’s inventory of nearly 1,200 F-16s.

The future of the F-15E Strike Eagle, which is primarily used in ground attack missions, was not discussed specifically during the hearing.

While the Boeing-made F-15 is designed with specific capabilities to out-duel opposing planes in air-to-air combat, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 is a multi-role aircraft, built to carry out a variety of missions.

If the F-15 is retired, Air Force top brass told lawmakers that they would outfit the F-16 with new radar systems, prepping it to “serve the same function as the F-15.”

“There are capabilities we can add and provide on the F-16 that will [fill] a gap as we go into the future. Overall, our readiness and our protection of the US will change, but I think overall, we will be OK,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard.

But several subcommittee members expressed concerns around whether the F-16 can adequately fill the shoes of a tactically specialized jet that boasts more than 100 aerial victories.

“If we’re talking about fourth generation assets, you’ve got the F-15C, which prior to the F-22 was the best at air-to-air … the F-16 is an incredible, versatile, multi-role, little bit less expensive sort of decathlete,” said Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally, pressing Air Force leaders on the proposal.

“Comparing the capabilities side by side … {an F-16} doesn’t bring the same expertise as the F-15 in air-to-air,” she added.

Both Rice and Air Force Director of Current Operations Maj. Gen. Scott West confirmed that the proposal was under consideration but also stressed that nothing was final, calling the option “pre-decisional.”

The idea also caught some of the subcommittee members off-guard, as McSally said she hadn’t heard about plans to retire the F-15 until told during last week’s hearing.

Despite its long history of service, the F-15 continues to see deployments to some of the most tense regions of the world.

Last year, the Air Force sent squadrons of F-15s to Iceland, the Netherlands and Finland to reassure NATO allies after Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

And 50 Eagles are stationed at Kadena Air Base in Japan as a key part of the US power-projection strategy in the Pacific.

The Air Force has turned its attention toward planning its budget for the 2019 fiscal year, but Rice told lawmakers that he did not expect a decision to be made regarding the fate of the F-15 until 2020.

The major selling point of dumping the F-15 in favor of the F-16 hinges on cost.

Parring down the number of different aircraft models in the fleet would increase combat and maintenance efficiency while providing added budget flexibility, West said.

That flexibility could be used to invest in more modern weapons systems as the US technology advantage over potential adversaries continues to shrink.

“I think sooner is better given the investments being made by China and Russia are, in particular, pretty significant,” he said.

It remains unclear how a plan to retire the F-15 would impact the Air Force’s on-going initiative to invest $12 billion in revamping the F-15 fleet with upgraded radar technology, infrared search and track, and electronic warfare capabilities.

These upgrades are expected to extend the life of the F-15 through 2040.

The Air Force initially planned to replace the entire F-15 fleet with the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor, but production of the stealthy aircraft was halted in 2009 and only 188 of the 749 F-22s planned by the Pentagon were ever produced.

Recent pilot shortages, budget cuts and delays to new platforms, such as the the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, have prompted Air Force brass to call the current force the “smallest, oldest and least ready” in history.

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