Since its inception, the US Air Force has been at the vanguard of technological change. From the pre-Air Force Wright Brothers era through two World Wars, the space race, and the advent of stealth, the nation has benefited from the world’s best cutting-edge technology, rapidly developed by industry and operationalized by airmen.
That technological edge is key to our National Security Strategy. The United States doesn’t strive to be the world’s largest military, but rather its most capable. Other nations may have more troops, planes, or missiles; the US counters with superior training and capability. These act as force multipliers, producing superior forces that comfort allies and deter potential foes.
Air superiority is critical to this strategic approach. Without it, our ships at sea, troops on land, cyber facilities, and a broad range of aircraft are not survivable. But as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein reminds us, “Air superiority is not an American birthright.” On the contrary, air superiority is attained and sustained only through continuous innovation and investment.
While 18 years of regional conflict and counterinsurgency distracted the United States, China narrowed the capability gap between its forces and ours. Chinese defense spending will climb another 7.5 percent this year, on top of an 8.1 percent increase a year ago, and 7 percent annual increases in each of the two years before that. China’s defense spending is growing faster than its economy and several times the rate of inflation, demonstrating its determination to catch up and, ultimately, overtake the United States.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, China’s fifth generation J-20 and FC-31/J-31 fighter jets feature low-observable designs similar to those of American fifth generation fighters; modern AESA radars; long-range, multiband electro-optical targeting systems; and glass cockpits equipped with advanced avionics and sensor fusion. On the ground, China now has advanced Russian-built S-400 air defense systems and is investing in new strategic early warning, air strike, air and missile defense systems.
That is the threat the United States faces in a head-to-head engagement with China.
Now let’s look at the other side of this equation. The decision to cancel the F-22 in 2009, after buying just 187 rather than 381 jets, set the stage for the US Air Force today: Its fleet of F-15Cs are aging out, and its options for replacing them are few. Having apparently ruled out overhauling those jets to extend their service lives, the choice on the table comes down to this: Buy new F-15EXs, which represent a modest upgrade over existing F-15Cs, or accelerate the purchase and fielding of the F-35A, which boasts transformative stealth, sensors, and situational awareness.
If ever there was an unfair fight, this is it. The F-35’s radar cross section is 1/5,000th that of an F-15. Enemies can see an F-15 more than 200 miles out, but won’t detect the F-35 until it’s within 21 miles. It’s like spotting a housefly coming at you at Mach 1.6.
This is what air superiority is all about: Creating an unfair fight, where we have the advantage. So why is this even a debate
Surprisingly, it’s not about the sticker price. Despite the generational difference between the two airframes, the marginal cost for each successive airplane will be almost identical by 2024-2025, when the F-15s would finally become operational. Nor is it really about operating costs. The cost per flying hour of an F-15 is lower today than it is for an F-35A, but F-35 costs are coming down and, under an agreement and plan between prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program office, should fall below F-15 operating costs by 2024.
That’s not to say, of course, that this debate isn’t about money—it is. An order for 80 F-15EXs would be worth $7.8 billion over five years, and perhaps double that over the life of a program that could total 144 jets.
That money has to come from somewhere, and the inevitable source will be F-35s. This is why the F-15EX finds itself in an unfair fight with a superior fighter.
Indeed, the real argument for buying the F-15EX isn’t about fighter capability at all—it’s about preserving the long-term industrial capacity to ensure that, when the time comes to build the next generation of fighter aircraft, the Defense Department doesn’t find itself captive to a single supplier. That’s the risk of shutting the door on Boeing fighter purchases for the next decade.
The solution is twofold: First, buy the F-35A. Commit to the more advanced platform, the one that imposes the greatest risk and cost on high-end adversaries. Second, reform the way the Air Force develops and buys new weapons.
Here, curiously, there is reason to turn back the clock. In the 1950s, the Air Force launched the “Century Series” of fighters, beginning with the F-100 and continuing through the F-117, the first stealth airplane. Not every Century Series design made it into production. But by continually developing new airframes, engines, sensors and concepts, the Air Force learned faster, gaining the upper hand on rivals.
That’s how the United States bankrupted and defeated the Soviet Union. Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Will Roper cites the Century Series and its iterative development approach as a model. Advancing technology has strategic effects. It can deter rivals from risking conflict, and impose costs that force them to rethink long-term strategy.
Much of our future capability will be wrought from software, rather than hardware, but advances in materials, manufacturing, and systems integration can also benefit from this iterative approach. Indeed, F-15EX maker Boeing leveraged exactly those concepts to wring billions out of the T-X trainer program, enabling it to cut years of time and potentially billions of dollars from program costs.
Buying just one airframe every two or three decades cannot and will not support a dynamic, competitive industrial base. Nor will it deliver sustainable innovation.
Think of it: Without Apple and Samsung, we might all still be using BlackBerrys and paper maps. Put another way—without Russia and China—we’d be fine with fourth generation fighters.