The decision for the Air Force to procure a new version of Boeing’s [BA] fourth-generation F-15E Strike Eagle in the fiscal year 2020 budget came down to two criteria: meeting the the mission needs of the National Defense Strategy in an affordable way, and the need to maintain a diverse industrial base, a senior defense official said March 22.

Speaking with reporters on background, the official said that the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and the Air Force came to the decision together to procure the F-15EX last fall, after CAPE reviewed the service’s FY ’20 Program Objective Memorandom (POM) and made some recommendations about the tactical aircraft portfolio.

Boeing’s F-15 Advanced Eagle, an upgraded version of the F-15E Strike Eagle. (Photo: Boeing)

While the Air Force has long expressed the need to buy more Lockheed Martin [LMT]-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – and has publicly stated that the F-15EX was not included in the POM – CAPE officials recommended that a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters would help meet future mission needs at a more cost-effective and efficient rate.

Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agreed to examine the procurement of new fourth-generation aircraft to help increase capacity and meet mission needs, the official said. CAPE and the Air Force then ultimately decided upon the F-15EX as a means to maintain diversity in the industrial base around October 2018.

“After the decision to pursue … a new fourth-gen fighter was made, … it really turned into a conversation of, for the future of the Department of Defense, it’s going to be good to have multiple providers in the tactical aircraft portfolio,” the official said. “That’s what led our way into the F-15EX decision.”

Mattis signed off on the arrangement in the October 2018 timeframe, and Acting Defense Secretary (then-Deputy Defense Secretary) Patrick Shanahan was not involved in the aircraft-specific discussions due to an ethics agreement related to his extensive background at Boeing, the official said. Shanahan is currently under investigation by the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General for alleged comments disparaging Boeing competitors and for potentially pushing the department to procure Boeing products (Defense Daily, March 20).

The 2018 National Defense Strategy’s missions will require a mix of penetrating and standoff weapons, the official noted. “Not only do we need the penetrating assets, but we also simply need a certain quantity of platforms with which to deliver ordnance,” the official said.

While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will remain the fighter of choice for penetrating air missions, all of the services are beginning to see value in maintaining a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation tactical aircraft “and the additional capability that that kind of teaming brings to the battlefield,” the official said. The F-15EX, for example, could be an asset for fixed air base defense.

The Air Force’s inventory of fourth-generation aircraft – which includes a mix of F-15C/D/E aircraft as well as Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon – is aging out, and is starting to see capacity shortfalls, the official noted.

The prospect of the Air Force potentially procuring new souped-up F-15s was first reported in July 2018 by Defense One. Since then, the possibility of the service going back to buying fourth-generation aircraft rather than pursue additional Joint Strike Fighters has been met with some consternation. The Air Force’s FY ’20 presidential budget request included $1.05 billion to procure eight F-15EX fighters, and included plans to buy up to 80 new jets over the five-year Future Years Defense Plan (Defense Daily, March 12).

By contrast, the Air Force included $5.7 billion to buy 48 F-35A aircraft – eight aircraft fewer than were included in the FY ’19 enacted budget. The official said the department opted to focus more on modernization efforts and sustainment in this year’s budget, deciding “that it was probably better stabilize production component for now until we get that sustainment cycle running a little bit more smoothly.” That decision was made independently of the F-15EX conversation, the official added.

The senior defense official reconfirmed the Pentagon’s commitment to the F-35 program, noting that the budget request includes 78 Joint Strike Fighters across the department, and fully funded modernization efforts including the Block 4 program, as well as sustainment.

But the lifecycle cost of a fifth-generation aircraft will be more expensive than a fourth-gen jet, the official added. “From a capacity standpoint, we can simply buy more aircraft with a mix of planes that appropriately matches the mission set than we can if we went into a fifth-gen portfolio.”

In its cost assessments, CAPE was operating under the assumption that an F-15EX would cost about $90 million, including $80 million for the airframe, the official said. The unit price of an F-35 aircraft is currently about $89 million, and Lockheed Martin has committed to reaching an $80 million unit price by 2020.

The official noted that the Air Force is also considering other standoff weapon aircraft, such as using unmanned aerial systems, and is studying the concept of an “armada” aircraft – turning an aging platform into a flying launchpad of sorts for various conventional payloads, as conceptualized by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

“They’re trying to figure out what that program would look like,” the official said, adding that while the Pentagon continues to invest in unmanned systems, a mix of fighter jets still seemed “warranted” for the tactical air portfolio and the current mission needs.