The US Air Force hopes to keep its fleet of Boeing F-15EStrike Eagle multirole fighters in service into the 2030s, but it has nodefinitive plan to eventually replace those aircraft.
The Strike Eagle is arguably the best multirole combataircraft in the USAF’s inventory. No other fighter offers the range, payload orbreadth or depth of capability as the F-15E. The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptorwas designed to replace the Boeing F-15C, but not the Strike Eagle. TheLockheed F-35, meanwhile, is designed to replace the Fairchild Republic A-10and Lockheed F-16, but it does not have the range or payload to take on theStrike Eagle’s role. At some point, the USAF will have to make a decision onwhat, if anything, will eventually fill the F-15E’s mission space in the 2030s asthose airframes inevitably wear out.
Industry sources are confident that a variant of the F-35could one day replace the F-15E. Anextended range version of the F-35 can be built; it’s already been studied. Itwould be particularly helpful if the Air Force Research Laboratory’s AdaptiveEngine Technology Development (AETD) program pays off with an engine thatyields 35% or better fuel efficiency over the Pratt & Whitney F135. Thesame is true of a two-seat F-35 variant, industry sources say that it can bedone–that is, if in fact, two-seats are needed. And there are options toincrease the jet’s payload.
But analysts are less sure. They say that modifying the F-35is going to require a lot of effort and it will be costly. The old Lockheed FB-22concept that was based on the Raptor would have practically required a redesign of theentire aircraft (and there are questions about what kind of range the FB-22could have yielded–the F-22′s Achilles’ heel is its range–only slightly betterthan an F-16). Another example is the Boeing F/A-18E/F, the Super Hornet is for allintents and purposes an entirely new airframe compared to the original Athrough D-model jets.
There could be a sixth-generation option–the USAF and USNavy have started looking at what an F-X and F/A-XX would look like. Or therecould be other options like an unmanned aircraft tethered (line-of-sight data-links, possibly laser-based) to a manned platformsuch as a Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). That would mitigate some of the comms issues inside an anti-access/area-denial environment.
But any decision would have to be taken by the end of thedecade at the very latest–it takes a very long time to develop and field amodern combat aircraft. However, given that there are so many competingresource priorities for the USAF, there must be serious consideration given tosimply increasing the number of LRS-Bs to take over some of that mission space.It could be argued that if the LRS-B program were extended from 80-100 aircraftto a production run of 250-300 aircraft, one could recapitalize the entire USAFbomber fleet and forego an F-15E replacement.
There is, of course, a potential wild card. I supposewhatever the USAF is building out at Groom Lake could partially fill the deepinterdiction role–if it exists and is designed as a penetrating strike/ISRplatform. But as the Lexington Institute’s Dan Goure points out, aircraftdeveloped in the black world tend to be extremely high tech and extremelyexpensive boutique items. So, that’s probably not a likely scenario.
In any case, if there is eventually a program to replace theStrike Eagle, it must be built in some numbers. It seems that every time theUSAF embarks on a program, far fewer aircraft than expected hit the ramp at theend of the day (or two-and-a-half decades!). If the trend continues, the USAF’sfleet of modern frontline combat aircraft will continue to shrink topotentially dangerous low levels, leaving a force of antiquated jets to faceoff against ever more capable foes.
Anyways, I’m off to Canada for the holiday season, so DEWLine posts will be sporadic (at best) until the New Year. So I’ll leave you allthis to ponder–it’s an MIT Technology Review article on a potentiallyunjammable radar based on the quantum properties of photons.