The U.S. Air Force is looking to cut the already relatively small size of its F-15E Strike Eagle fleet by around 54 percent before the end of the decade, according to a recent report. This comes despite the service's F-15Es being some of, if not its most in-demand tactical jets thanks to their highly-desirable blend of speed, range, payload capacity, crew size, and other capabilities.
Aviation Week first reported that the Air Force is looking to cut 119 of its 218 F-15Es by the 2028 Fiscal Year yesterday, citing information it said it had obtained the service's broader future force structure and spending priorities. The War Zone has reached out to the Air Force to confirm this and get more information about the service's plans for the F-15E fleet.
The 119 F-15Es reportedly now on the chopping block represent the remaining examples powered by two Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E turbofan engines, each of which produces roughly 23,500 pounds of thrust. The remaining 99 aircraft are ones that feature a pair of more powerful F100-PW-229s, rated at 29,000 pounds of thrust apiece. The F100-PW-220E-powered jets also represent the older portion of the Strike Fleet, having been the first to enter service starting in 1988.
Among the Air Force's current tactical jet fleets, the F-15Es offer the greatest range, aided by a pair of conformal fuel tanks, and payload capacity. The aircraft can carry the majority of the air-launched precision-guided and stand-off munitions in the service's current inventory, including the new B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. It has the ability to carry a large number of weapons of various types all at once. It has space under its wings and fuselage to lug around outsized munitions, too, and could potentially be a platform for future hypersonic missiles and other novel weapons.
In addition, the F-15Es feature significant sensor and self-protection capabilities. Thanks to an underway upgrade program, each of the jets now carries a highly capable AN/APG-82(V)1 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The Air Force is in the process of adding the Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System (EPAWSS) to these aircraft, which will offer a massive new defensive, situational awareness, and electronic attack boost, as you can read about more here.
There has also been talk in the past few years of expanding the F-15E's mission sets to include electronic warfare. The integration of variants or derivatives of the Navy's podded family of Next Generation Jammers onto the Strike Eagles is one possibility that has come up in this regard. EPAWSS will also give these jets an impressive and expandable EW capability that can go beyond self-protection.
Even with a heavy load, the Strike Eagle still has significant speed and range, giving it the ability to respond relatively quickly to contingencies throughout a theater from forward-deployed locations. The Air Force's F-15Es have routinely demonstrated their capabilities in combat over the past two decades, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Strike Eagles covered the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021.
To this day, one of the six Strike Eagle squadrons is almost always deployed to the Middle East to be in place if needed. F-15Es have been a particularly important deterrent against attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and their partners for years now. They have engaged hostile ground forces and shot down Iranian drones in the course of operations in that country specifically.
Just today, U.S. Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that his command has observed a "significant spike" in aggressive and unprofessional behavior on the part of the Russian Air Force in Syria. This includes recent flights by fully-armed Russian aircraft over bases that host American forces. This disclosure comes just two days after one of Russia's Su-27 Flanker fighter jets collided with an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, causing the latter aircraft crash, as you can read more about here.
Contingents of F-15Es are also forward-deployed in Europe and make regular visits to the Indo-Pacific region. These aircraft routinely take part in major exercises, and to bolster the ability of U.S. forces to respond to major crises in those parts of the world.
All of this can only raise questions then about how exactly the Air Force might be planning to make up for the loss of half of the Strike Eagle fleet within the next five years.
One possible course of action that the Air Force has brought up itself in the past, and that The War Zone has explored in detail, would be to recapitalize the F-15E fleet with new F-15EX Eagle IIs. Just yesterday, Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the service's Chief of Staff, said that the Strike Eagle and Eagle II provide “similar capability" during remarks at the annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference, according to Air and Space Forces Magazine. It is worth pointing out that while outwardly similar, the Eagle II, which Boeing touts as the most advanced F-15 currently in production, is actually more capable than the Strike Eagle.
Almost two years ago, Brown unveiled a plan to ultimately scale back the service's tactical aircraft fleets to just four types: the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the F-16C/D Viper, the F-15E Strike Eagle and the F-15EX Eagle II (as a singular entity), and a future sixth-generation combat jet being developed under the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
However, the F-15EX program has been in flux in the past year or so. The Air Force's plan for those aircraft that is emerging now is significantly scaled back compared to how it was originally envisioned.
The Air Force is looking to buy 24 more Eagle IIs in the 2024 Fiscal Year, which would bring the total planned fleet size up to 104 aircraft. This is more than the 80-jet fleet the service had said it was looking at last year, but is still less than the at least 144 examples it originally said it would purchase.
Aviation Week's story yesterday said that the Air Force was looking to order another 24 jets in the 2025 Fiscal Year, but that this would be the final Eagle II buy. This would further bump the expected size of the F-15EX fleet up to 128 aircraft, but it's unclear where those additional Eagle IIs might be expected to go.
As it stands now, 104 F-15EXs should be enough to recapitalize all of the remaining F-15C/D Eagles assigned to Air National Guard units, which are tasked with the homeland air defense mission. The Air Force is also in the process of shuttering its active-duty F-15C/D-equipped units. The Air Force has said, broadly, that the expectation is that new F-35A Joint Strike Fighters will fill the resulting gap left by the departure of the older Eagles.
However, the Air Force has yet to announce plans to stand up any F-35A squadrons, or ones equipped with any other aircraft, to directly replace two that had been forward deployed at Kadena Air Base in Japan with F-15C/Ds until just last year. So, the extra 24 Eagle IIs could eventually take the place of the Eagles that had been based there. The War Zone has highlighted this as one potential course of action for an expanded F-15EX buy, as you can read more about here. It's something that the leadership at Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force's top command in the region, has expressed an interest in, too.
They could also be turned over to the Strike Eagle community, but would not be enough to make up for the loss of the older half of the F-15E fleet. Beyond all this, The War Zone reported in January that Strike Eagles based in the United Kingdom are now being operated in some instances in the air-to-air role without their signature conformal fuel tanks to make up for the loss of F-15C/D units in that region.
It's unclear how long F-15Es in the United Kingdom may be tasked with air-to-air missions given that F-35As have started to arrive as replacements for the retired Eagles. Regardless, it speaks to additional strains that the heavily tasked Strike Eagle fleet is facing already that take them away from their primary strike mission.
On top of everything else, slashing the F-15E fleet and truncating the F-15EX buy creates two very niche fleets, something that inherently presents training and logistical issues. Unless something changes, to support both types, the Air Force will be running two independent schoolhouse units to provide a training pipeline to a pair of communities each with roughly around 100 jets.
The Air Force is, of course, currently pushing to divest a host of legacy aircraft, including tactical jets like the entire F-15C/D and A-10 Warthog fleets, in the coming years and supplant them with next-generation types and other advanced capabilities. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall just revealed this month that the service is planning around a future force that will include 200 NGAD combat jets – a number that would fit with separate plans to retire all of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters in the coming years – and an initial tranche of 1,000 Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA).
The Air Force has broadly described CCAs as relatively low-cost advanced drones with high degrees of autonomy intended to work closely together with crewed platforms. Though the Air Force says CCAs are expected to be used first in air-to-air roles initially, future types would surely be used for strike missions. The service is publicly exploring other advanced aerial strike capabilities and more work could be ongoing in the classified realm, too.
The final concepts of operations for how the CCAs will be employed are very much still being refined. It is worth noting that the 1,000 CCA figure is based on basis of pairing two of these drones with each of the 200 NGAD combat jets, as well as 300 F-35As. The F-15Es and F-15EXs, at least currently, are apparently not part of that collaborative equation.
Overall, the reported decision to significantly cut the F-15E fleet adds to broader questions prompted by how fast the Air Force seems to be moving to divest legacy types. The service's purchases of new aircraft in the coming years, at least so far, look to be quite modest. The Air Force will have to maintain some type of minimum force structure and personnel end strength in order to still perform its key missions in this transitional period.
As is the case with any cuts, members of Congress could always seek to block Air Force plans to the slash F-15E fleet. Legislators can and do regularly prevent the divestment of aircraft, as well as ships and other systems.
All told, what exactly will happen to the Air Force's Strike Eagles remains to be seen, but if the service's reported plans are allowed to proceed, this heavily utilized fleet is set to dramatically shrink in the coming years.
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