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​The Boeing Advanced F-15 has a max weapons payload of 29,500 pounds, additional weapons stations for greater mission effectiveness, and the ability to deliver a variety of smart and precision weapons. Boeing photo.

Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan said the Air Force has to seek quick ways to recapitalize its fighter force, and suggested the F-35 just isn’t coming online fast enough. However, he would neither confirm nor deny whether the F-15X is in the fiscal 2020 defense budget.

When asked at an AFA Mitchell Institute event on Friday why USAF might back off its previously ironclad policy of refusing to buy any “new old” aircraft, Donovan declined to talk about the fourth-generation F-15X as a budget item, because to do so would be “pre-decisional,” and “I like my job.”

“History being what it is, and because we never quite got to the procurement ramp we needed to” on the F-35, “we’re in a bit of a pickle,” Donovan said. “We don’t have the capacity we need” in the fighter force. Donovan’s speech to the AFA audience focused heavily on the need to increase the size of the Air Force to 386 combat squadrons in order to fulfill the National Defense Strategy of engaging China and Russia in Great Power Competition.

He noted that, under original plans, USAF expected to have 736 F-35s by now, but “we have 174, ... so … we need to increase our fighter procurement, replacement rate.” Congress, he said, inserted language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act setting a floor for the inventory of Air Force fighters, and “if we don’t replace our airplanes that are getting ready to age out, then we’re going to bust that floor. And not at a good time, as we come into the mid-‘20s.”

Donovan insisted the Air Force is “very happy with the F-35s that are coming off the line today. … Go ask any of those pilots at Hill” AFB, Utah, home of the first operational F-35 squadrons, “they’re just kicking butts with that thing.”

The F-15X proposal, according to industry officials, posits a buy of 12 F-15Xs at a cost of $1.2 billion, or roughly $100 million per airplane, versus an F-35, which costs about $83 million a copy for the Air Force version, the F-35A. The F-35 is still in what is called low-rate production, but if it successfully clears initial operational test and evaluation by the end of this year, the way will be clear for ramping up to full-rate production in fiscal 2020.

Original plans called for the Air Force to buy 80-110 F-35s per year at this point, but the Air Force is only buying 60 under new schedules and won’t get to 80 until circa 2024.

The Air Force has insisted for nearly 18 years that it will spend all available dollars for fighters on fifth generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35, because fourth generation jets are increasingly vulnerable to steadily improving adversary air defenses. Air Combat Command has judged that non-stealthy jets like the F-15 will be unable to enter defended enemy airspace sometime between 2028 and 2030.

Brand-new F-15Xs would have a potential service life of 40-plus years. Asked if buying the jets would compel the Air Force to maintain a parts and logistics pipeline far beyond current plans, Donovan noted that the F-15E strike fighter in USAF service “is a 20,000-hour airplane. That’s probably going to be around for quite some time.”

The F-15X would have a greater loadout than the 1980s and ‘90s versions serving with USAF, along with better electronic warfare, sensors, and more efficient engines. Boeing has recently sold upgraded versions to South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar; a new sale to Israel is reportedly in negotiation. A purchase by USAF would lower the price for Foreign Military Sales and assure foreign customers the US will maintain the F-15 logistics train well into the future.

Boeing officials have told Air Force Magazine that after the jet can no longer be a penetrating fighter, it would be a formidable air defense aircraft, with capability against stealthy adversary aircraft. However, its operating cost would be substantially higher than the F-16, which is currently performing in that role.

Buying a Boeing product that USAF has long maintained it does not want potentially poses optics problems for Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was a long-time Boeing executive. Donovan shrugged off that potential problem, saying Shanahan has “recused himself” on Boeing-related acquisition matters, most recently with regard to the KC-46 tanker. When Boeing-related questions arose, “we skipped him and went right to Secretary [Jim] Mattis because of the recusal, so those safeguards are in place and that applies to any program.” Donovan added that “he’s not the only senior leader that came from industry” who has had to recuse on certain matters.

Asked afterwards by Air Force Magazine why the service doesn’t simply increase its F-35 buy—given that Lockheed Martin has hit its delivery requirements for the last few years and could increase production capacity—Donovan simply said, “What was the original requirement? What was the F-35 supposed to replace?” After a pause, he asserted, “That’s all I can say.”