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US Air Force chief ambivalent on F-15 Eagle retirement

April 12, 2017 (Photo Credit: Naoto Anazawa/US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s top general isn’t sold on the potential retirement of the F-15C/D Eagle, he said Wednesday.

After an event at the Heritage Foundation, Gen. David Goldfein told reporters he was still undecided on whether the service should retire its fleet of F-15C/D jets in the mid-2020s.

“We’re looking at all options all the time because until we get a budget, it’s really hard to plan. So occasionally you’re going to see us look at all kinds of different options,” he said. “So I have not made any decision on the F-15. I actually haven’t made a decision on any of the aircraft. We’re going to keep the F-15C around at least until 2020.”

Earlier this month, Air Force officials disclosed a budget planning option that would sideline the F-15C/D, replacing them with F-16s upgraded for better survivability in air-to-air combat. The younger fleet of F-15E Strike Eagles would remain intact.

Goldfein, speaking today, said continued high operational tempo precludes any immediate decision on its fleet of C and D model F-15s.

“In the Air Force, we need capacity, because we’re in high demand, whether you want to talk about what we’re doing in the Middle East or whether you want to talk about what we’re doing in the Korean Peninsula, or what we’re doing forward in Europe,” he said. “Airpower is in higher and higher demand. So right now I’m looking very closely at capacity.”

The Air Force owns about 230 F-15Cs and Ds. The majority of those jets are flown by the Air National Guard for homeland defense missions, with the exception of active squadrons at Kadena Air Base in Japan and RAF Lakenheath in England.

At an earlier event, Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, the deputy chief of staff for operations who is also a former F-15C/D pilot, said the F-16 could probably fill that homeland defense role if it gets the right upgrades, such as an active electronically scanned aperture (AESA) radar. But ultimately, neither the F-16 nor F-15 will be viable in future high-threat environments overseas, and both will rely on fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22 to clear out advanced weapon systems.

“The question of an F-15 and an F-16 in a European scenario on its own, neither one is going to do it. They both are going to get shot down and die,” he said. “But a combination with a concept of operation that puts together electronic combat, that puts together fifth-generation [fighters], fourth-generation [fighters], timing, tempo, long-range munitions, standoff munitions ...  it’s going to make it better.”

The Guard loves the F-15C, but it is an “old airplane” that already had 7,100 flight hours on it when Rowland was flying them in 2001, he said. Even then, the aircraft required extensive maintenance, and the newer F-22 can conduct air superiority missions better.

“People forget I was at Lakenheath when the nose of an F-15 broke off in flight,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, there’s limits to what you can do with service life extensions. So it really comes down to fleet management.”

Meanwhile, the service continues to work on long-term plans for all of its weapons systems, from its fighter squadrons and bomber fleets to its space enterprise. Those assessments include examining whether the F-15C/D’s retirement would generate cost savings or potentially even cost the Air Force money, considering it could require transferring F-16 infrastructure to the Guard and retraining pilots. But Goldfein said his focus remains on the Air Force as a whole, not on sustaining particular platforms. 

“The way I look at it is not going to be about this platform versus that platform," he said. “It’s going to be how do we network these capabilities together to be able to do the mission that the nation is asking us to do.”
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