Air-Minded: the Non-Starter Option? (Updated 11/20/15)

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, long out of production, has a constituency. The C-130 Hercules, still in production after more than 60 years, has a constituency.

Where are the constituencies, I wonder, for “legacy” fighter aircraft like the F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and F-16 Fighting Falcon?

The Arizona delegation to Congress is fighting hard to keep the A-10 in the Air Force inventory past its retirement date. Congressmen from Georgia and a number of subcontracting states continue to force the USAF, against its wishes, to keep buying new C-130s.

But there is near-unanimity in Congress in support of phasing out our inventory of legacy fighters and replacing them, along with the USMC’s AV-8 Harriers, with Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Guess what, though … all three legacy fighters are still in production.

Boeing is currently building a version of the F-15E, designated the F-15SA, for Saudi Arabia, and is still actively seeking an overseas customer for a highly modified F-15E variant it calls the Silent Eagle. Both aircraft are greatly improved models of the older F-15E Strike Eagles flown by the USAF, introduced in the mid-1980s and now nearing the end of their operational lives. Both new F-15E variants are multirole fighters, fully capable of air-to-ground and air-to-air employment.

F-15SA: in production now

F-15 Silent Eagle
F-15 Silent Eagle mockup: looking for a buyer

Boeing is still building brand new F/A-18 Super Hornets in single-seat and two-seat configurations, aircraft currently being flown in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and electronic warfare roles.

F:A-18E Super Hornet
F/A-18E Super Hornet: still in production

It is perhaps understandable that Lockheed, prime contractor for the F-35, isn’t talking up its F-16 or going out of its way to remind anyone that it too is still in production.

F-16E Block 60
F-16E Block 60 (UAE): still in production

Can it really be there’s no constituency behind the idea of buying a fresh batch of F-15SA or Silent Eagle fighters for the USAF? Such a buy could make up for the limited number of F-22 Raptor air-to-air fighters, now out of production after fewer than 200 aircraft were built, far short of the 700+ the USAF wanted. New F-15s could supplement the F-22 in the air superiority role, while also providing air-to-ground capability until problems with the F-35 are worked out. Same goes for current production models of the F/A-18 and F-16. We could buy more. We could buy them now. For a hell of a lot less money than it’s costing us to bring the F-35 on line.

I can’t believe some congressman (never mind the aircraft manufacturers) isn’t pushing the idea of buying more of these current and proven fighters. I can’t believe factions in the Department of Defense and the military services haven’t emerged to support the idea. It’s like there’s a wall of silence around the subject. It’s like this perfectly sensible option is one that dares not speak its name. It’s like someone at the highest levels has decreed the very idea a non-starter.

All of these current and proven fighters share the advantages attributed to the F-35: they are true multirole aircraft, they are highly maneuverable, they use advanced digital array radars, they can employ everything in the modern air-to-air and air-to-ground armament inventory, they have helmet-mounted displays with off-boresight missile cueing, they have datalink for information sharing. The only thing they don’t have is stealth.

Fuck stealth. There isn’t an air force in the world that won’t turn tail and run from a wall of Eagles coming its way.

Congress must be swimming in a sea of defense contractor bribe money … and defense contractors like Boeing must have been bought off with promises of greater contracts to come … for there to be such a wall of silence on the simple idea of buying newer versions of existing fighters. Clamping down on DoD and the military is easier: just threaten dissenters’ careers and label them traitors.

To be fair, there is also this: the success of the F-35 program depends on American and allied countries standing firm on buying it in the numbers projected. If one or two allies back away from their commitments to buy the F-35, costs will go up dramatically and other allies may get wobbly knees. And if American military services start buying new versions of legacy fighters, they’re going to want fewer F-35s. In other words, any discussion of alternatives to the current F-35 program is a threat, and that helps explain why the idea of buying additional Eagles, Hornets, and Fighting Falcons is a non-starter.

Update (7/23/15): Interesting. Boeing plans to keep Super Hornet line open after positive signs from Congress, international customers.

Update (11/20/15): Wow! It appears my non-starter options might just be a starter after all! So happy to see national decision-makers taking me up on my suggestion!

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One thought on “Air-Minded: the Non-Starter Option? (Updated 11/20/15)

  • I suggested the RNLAF do the same thing: Buy the F-15 Silent Eagle rather then the F-35 and the math on saving is awesome … I guess the F-35 lobby is to heavy.

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