Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles Are Getting Replacement Wings Ripped Off Saudi F-15S Jets

Some of the U.S. Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagles are now in line to get replacement wings taken from Saudi Arabian F-15S aircraft. The Saudi jets are getting entirely new wings as part of the conversion process into the advanced F-15SA configuration and the old ones had been destined from the scrap heap. The Air Force says buying up these surplus wings will help it save hundreds of millions of dollars while helping to keep at least some of its heavily in demand Strike Eagle fleet flying through 2040.

The Air Force revealed the deal with Saudi Arabia, negotiations around which began in 2018, earlier this week. The first eight F-15S wing sets arrived at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia in August 2020, where the service subsequently began refurbishing them for installation on its F-15Es. 

An F-15E Strike Eagle., USAF

How much was spent to buy and prepare the wings to go onto Air Force Strike Eagles is unclear. Officials at Robins said that this process saved the service approximately $80 million compared to buying new wings from Boeing, which would have cost five times more and would have taken five years to be delivered.

“My team was in a unique position to help facilitate the F-15 wings purchase initiative through arrangement for temporary storage after the wing removals at the conversion line in Saudi Arabia and to coordinate documentation approvals with the partner nation,” Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Pope, the Deputy Security Assistance Program Manager within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) F-15SA Conversion, Fighters and Advanced Aircraft office, said in a statement. “Recognizing that the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S to SA conversion includes removal and disposal of wings, the U.S. Air Force F-15 office determined that the potential of obtaining several sets of Royal Saudi Air Force wings in ‘A-Condition’ from F-15SA conversion might offer a massive schedule and cost savings for the aging F-15 fleet.”

Personnel at Warner Robins Air Force Base work on a wing taken from an F-15S Eagle., USAF

“This wings buy gives the U.S. Air Force the option to install these wings at a significant time and cost savings, while U.S. Air Force legacy wings are waiting for parts or in the event they are found to be non-reparable,” Pope added.

Saudi Arabia first received approval to buy a fleet of 84 new-build F-15SA Advanced Eagles, the most advanced version of the F-15 on offer at the time, in 2010 and took delivery of the first of these jets in 2017. In 2012, Boeing received an additional contract through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to upgrade 68 existing F-15S aircraft to the F-15SA standard. The Air Force announced that it had facilitated the delivery of the last all-new F-15SA to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 10.

An F-15SA used for testing as seen in 2018., Christopher McGreevy

Given the size of the F-15S to SA conversion program, the Air Force says that it may now buy another 42 “A-Condition” wing sets from the Saudis. The service has projected that doing so would save it another $250 million compared to purchasing all-new wings straight from the manufacturer.

“The purchase of the F-15SA wings will open up opportunities to procure other aircraft parts resulting from the F-15 Saudi Aircraft Conversion Program that will benefit the warfighter at a reduced cost,” Eric Wietstruk, the F-15 Product Support Manager in the AFLCMC’s F-15 Program Office at Robins, said in his own statement. “We continue to work with our FMS partners to support and sustain our mutual F-15 legacy and new aircraft fleets.”

This is not the first time the Air Force has struck a deal with one of its FMS partners regarding F-15s, either. Just a few years ago, the Israeli Air Force acquired nine ex-Air National Guard F-15Ds that had originally been slated to be parted out. The IAF, which pioneered the use of the Eagle in the long-range strike role, found out about the jets, rushed to buy them, and subsequently put them through a major upgrade program. This highlights how there is a clear value in effectively recycling these aircraft, or portions of them.

The ability to acquire significant stocks of newer components, or ones that are at least cheaper to refurbish compared to buying new, via the castoffs from the F-15S to SA conversion program might turn out to be an important factor for the Air Force’s own plans with regards to the F-15E. At present, the service has around 219 Strike Eagles, which are middle-aged at best, or firmly in the back half of their service lives. 

While the Air Force’s plan is now to replace its even older fleet of F-15C/D Eagle fighters with new-build F-15EX jets, it has yet to make a decision about what to with the Strike Eagles. Cost will be an important point of consideration and there has already been discussion about whether simply buying additional F-15EXs might be the most sensible move price-wise. 

One of the first two F-15EX jets under construction for the US Air Force., USAF

The F-15EX, which you can read about in more detail in these past War Zone pieces, is derived from the F-15QA Advanced Eagle for Qatar, the most advanced Eagle in production now, and would offer significantly improved capabilities over the existing F-15E. 

Any larger life-extension program for the Strike Eagles has the potential to be costly and time-consuming, even if the jets are not brought to a similarly advanced standard in the process. Other avenues to keep the F-15E fleet going, coupled with other upgrade programs aimed at keeping the jets combat relevant, might change this calculus, even if only in the near-to-mid term. 

As already noted, officials at Robins overseeing this wing replacement effort say that this will help ensure the F-15Es remain airworthy through at least 2040. At the same time, it’s not clear what else the Air Force may be looking at doing to keep its Strike Eagles going over the next two decades. A portion of the fleet, especially some of the early examples that the service first began buying in the late 1980s and that have less powerful Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E engines, could still end up being retired during that time frame.

No matter what, at least some of the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagles are now set to keep soaring for at least some amount of time thanks to new-ish wings pulled from their Saudi cousins.

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