As part of its next budget the Pentagon has cut plans for acquisitions of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters by 35 percent from 94 to 61 aircraft, diverting funds for more purchases of venerable non-stealthy F-15 Eagle jets namely the latest F-15EX variant.
F-35 (top) and F-15EX
The shift was revealed in the latest Selected Acquisition Report, and is expected to raise questions regarding the U.S. Military’s commitment to the F-35 program which has frequently been the subject of criticism and controversy. The sharp cut to orders comes as a major departure from the trend of previous years which has seen purchases gradually increase, and follows reports in 2021 that deep cuts to total F-35 acquisitions were being seriously considered down from the previously projected 1,763 aircraft to 1,050 or less – a decline of over 40%.
The F-35 is one of just two fifth generation fighters fielded at squadron level strength and in serial production anywhere in the world, the other being the Chinese J-20, with the American design being a light single engine aircraft originally designed to be affordable and to be acquired in large numbers. The the F-15 by contrast was designed as a high end heavyweight aircraft is more costly both to operate and to produce despite having first flown 50 years ago in 1972. It is the oldest fighter still in production anywhere in the world today.
Lockheed Martin F-35C
The decision to restart F-15 acquisitions in 2018 came as the F-35 faced very considerable delays, with the Pentagon having yet to certify it for full scale production due to ongoing performance issues which in 2021 were counted at over 850. While the F-35 is considered to have a greater potential for modernisation, the F-15EX has the advantage of having moved past its limited initial operating capability decades ago and being fully combat ready where the F-35 may not be for many years to come. The F-15 also benefits from a higher endurance, overwhelmingly superior flight performance including a supercruise capability, the ability to carry far greater ordinance, and avionics and sensors on par with those of the latest F-35 production batches.
The F-35’s significant advantages are its stealth capabilities for improved survivability and its lower operational costs, with the F-15EX’s attractiveness having been key to allowing the program to gain U.S. Air Force contracts and withstand significant pressure and arguments that too much investment had already been sunk into the F-35 program. With the F-35 still far from ready for high intensity combat, and its heavier counterpart the F-22 having not been produced for over a decade and suffering from ageing avionics and very low availability rates, the F-15EX will likely be the top fighter the United States or NATO as a whole can field should they need to fight a war immediately.
While the future of the F-35 program remains highly uncertain, and may well be affected by the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe in late February, the fighter program has been very widely criticised by prominent figures both in the military and in government meaning many will likely approve of a decision to cut or even prematurely close production. The last holder of the post of Secretary of Defense under the Donald Trump administration, Christopher C. Miller, referred to the program as a “monster” the military had created and to the fighter itself as “a piece of…” Former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain referred to it as “a textbook example’ of the country’s ‘broken defence acquisition system,” stating in a briefing to the Senate: “the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”
The fighter’s underperformance was criticised by sources ranging from leading think tanks such as the NSN and the RAND, to organisations such as the Project on Government Oversight and individuals such as the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester Michael Gilmore and Marine Captain Dan Grazier. Pentagon reports repeatedly highlighted that the F-35 suffered from poor reliability and that its high operational costs could make it unaffordable in the numbers initially intended, with technical challenges strongly reflected in Pentagon evaluations.