—John A. Tirpak
Air Force revelations in recent weeks that it’s beginning to think about the phaseout of the F- 15C/D Eagle has raised eyebrows and concern on Capitol Hill, potentially setting the stage for a replay of the controversy over USAF’s attempt to retire the A-10. But the move is inevitable, sooner or later, and is being considered in light of anticipated budgets and force structure, Air Combat Command chief Gen. James “Mike” Holmes said.
In an April 13 interview with Air Force Magazine, Holmes noted “the last ‘C’ model we bought (was) 31 years ago,” and “they’ve been used really hard.” Without structural rehabilitation of center fuselage bulkheads, “the engineers say you can’t operate” in the F-15’s design envelope anymore “at an acceptable risk … You risk them coming apart.”
The Air Force has an estimate from Boeing and Air Force Materiel Command of between $30-$40 million per airplane to do a structural upgrade that would get the F-15Cs past the late 2020s, Holmes noted, but to keep the fleet “functional” into the late ’20s will only cost about $1 million per airplane. “I think that’s probably a good deal,” Holmes said of the lower figure, “but to spend $30-$40 million to keep them for another 10 years beyond that may not be.”
The problem, he said, is that “I don’t know what my budget will be at the end of the 2020s, but I can assume that it won’t be radically different from what it is now.” If the Air Force is to stay at about 55-60 fighter squadrons, and a growing number of them will be filled with F-35s and the anticipated Penetrating Counterair Aircraft, “then I have choices I have to make. Something has to go,” Holmes said.
Regarding the A-10, he simply observed, “Congress has told us what our parameters are … and I’m going to plan within those.” The F-15 call doesn’t have to be made this year, “but I have to be thinking about it this year.”
To keep the F-15s in the fleet only through the end of the ‘20s means the decision can be postponed until about 2022. “But if I’m going to … go forward with the Penetrating Counterair Aircraft, then I have to prove to people that I can afford it, and so I have to plan.”
Affording it means not only having sufficient operating funds, but sufficient manpower to fly and maintain the aircraft. The Air Force has decided to move forward with a structural and capability upgrade of the F-16, because, Holmes said, the aircraft are newer and have more hours left that can be exploited. “It’s the most cost-effective service-life extension,” Holmes asserted, when assessing the need to maintain multirole capacity with service life remaining. Plus, the F-16s are well suited to the homeland defense mission, he said, which will increasingly require capability against cruise missiles. That will require the F-16 fleet to be fitted with new Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars, a digital radar warning receiver compatible with that radar, and “a new processor that will let all those things talk to each other, and keep them useful,” Holmes said.