Mistake? The Air Force Will Retired A ‘Fleet’ Of F-15E Strike Eagles

At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown spoke of plans to retire 119 F-15E Strike Eagles by the late 2020s.

The move would shrink the Strike Eagle fleet by more than half and is apparently part of a larger push by the Air Force to divest itself of legacy platforms.

While it is necessary to part with dated equipment, especially as new technologies such as the F-35A and Next Generation Air Dominance come online, these relatively dramatic cuts leave some observers wondering whether the remaining F-15E fleet will be able to meet demands in the interim.

Meet the F-15E

The F-15 was designed as an advanced air superiority fighter meant to tackle the Soviet Union’s MiG-25s. It proved to be exceptional at this role, and little thought was given to ground attack capabilities. In the early 1980s, the Air Force sought to replace the F-111 for deep air-interdiction missions. They needed a tactical aircraft capable of flying behind enemy lines without fighter escort to perform strike missions.

While the F-15 had originally been designed strictly to shoot down aircraft, a team at McDonnell-Douglas swiftly implemented changes to fill this role. One of the most significant design details was the addition of conformal fuel tanks. Traditionally, fuel is stored in tanks either inside the aircraft, which can limit their capacity and thus the fighter’s range, or in external drop tanks, which greatly increase capacity and range at the cost of maneuverability and weapons hardpoints. The Strike Eagle’s conformal tanks fit snugly onto the airframe. The inclusion of pylons, rather than traditional weapons racks, further reduced drag.

Structurally, the F-15E’s airframe was upgraded with advanced composites to incorporate more powerful engines. These engines, with a maximum thrust of up to 29,000 lbs each, allow it to carry a significant complement of weapons. When fully loaded, the Strike Eagle can carry up to eight air-to-air missiles or any air-to-surface weapon in the Air Force arsenal, including nuclear bombs.

Why Retire?

The F-15E has proven incredibly capable, serving in the Gulf War, the Balkans, and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. A squadron of Strike Eagles continues to provide support to American forces in Syria. In August 2021, a Strike Eagle shot down an unidentified drone approaching U.S. positions.

Given this record, it is unclear why the Air Force is moving to cut the force so drastically, particularly while the F-35A is still in production and the NGAD is still in development. These cuts come as the Air Force is also reducing its fleet of F-15C/D air superiority fighters, apparently with no replacement. Indeed, F-15Es have been spotted flying in the air superiority role without their conformal fuel tanks out of bases in England, and the retirement of two F-15C/D squadrons in Japan does not seem to have a replacement.

While the F-15EX, with an advanced defensive sensor suite known as EPAWSS, is waiting in the wings to replace the aging A-10 in National Guard units, so far there appears to be no replacement for the Strike Eagle and Eagle squadrons. Divesting down to 100 or so airframes also raises the question of the costs associated with maintaining a training and replacement pipeline for so small a fleet.

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