The US Air Force is trying to stamp out rumors that the service will retire its F-15C/D fleet, at least in the near future.

The prospect of an F-15C/D fleet retirement cropped up during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week, when members of Congress asked USAF leadership whether the Boeing aircraft could be replaced with Lockheed Martin F-16s. While the director of the Air National Guard entertained that concept as a possibility, the air force’s public affairs quickly pushed back on the idea, saying it was “pre-decisional.”

Air Force leadership continued that line during a 29 March hearing on Capitol Hill, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the service intends to maintain the F-15C fleet through the 2020s.

“We are not replacing it at this time,” Lt Gen Jerry Harris, USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, says. “It’s something we are looking at as we continue to bring in more fifth-gen capability...what assets do we push out at the bottom of that chain?”

The air force is undertaking an analysis that compares the purchase of new F-16s and servicing the F-15s, Harris confirmed. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, may not wait on those results to determine a way forward on the F-15 retirement. During her 30 March Senate confirmation hearing, Wilson refused a request from Senator Elizabeth Warren to delay the retirement until the Senate receives the comparison analysis.

The USAF will be able to form a better idea of the F-15’s future once the F-35 becomes a full operational platform, Harris told reporters. He also countered that the F-16 could perform the F-15’s traditional air-to-air role, something lawmakers have questioned.

Along with the F-15s, other fourth-generation aircraft could fall out of the USAF’s inventory to make room for the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For years, the air force attempted to retire the A-10 Warthog, but faced strong opposition from Congress. Although the air force lauds the A-10 as its best CAS platform, the service argues the F-35 will bring more even more survivability than the titanium bathtub. The USAF will not consider retiring the fourth-generation platform until the service completes its comparison study on the A-10 and F-35, Harris says. In the meantime, the air force is not asking for additional upgrades on the Warthog, which just received updated Boeing wings that could keep the aircraft flying through the 2040s.

While the USAF is saying news of the F-15’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, the service’s head of Air Combat Command also outlined the increasing costs to keep the Eagle flying. The F-15 would require a series of service life extension programmes including a center fuselage overhaul estimated at $40 million per unit, Gen Mike Holmes told reporters during a 29 March event in Washington.

“I’m probably not going to do that,” he says. “So the question is, what year does that happen at the rate we’re flying them and then there’s an end out there and somewhere in the late 20s that you either have to put $30 million or $40 million an airplane into them or stop flying them.”

If the USAF retires the F-15, then the service could use block 52 F-16s with a modernized AESA radar to fulfill the Eagle’s domestic air defense role, Holmes says.