NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — In an effort to extend its F-15 business, Boeing unveiled a new upgrade package for the F-15C design — one specifically targeting an air superiority gap left from the decision to cut production on the F-22.

The new design, part of an effort dubbed "F-15 C2040" by the company, would double the number of air-to-air weapons carried by the F-15C from 8 eight to 16 while adding conformal fuel tanks for enhanced distance.

It would also feature updated electronics, including a long-range Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor and the already planned Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS). It would also feature an updated AESA radar.

The upgrades being proposed are not one large package. Rather, the company is offering a menu of options, one which can be targeted both at the 250 air dominance F-15s in the US inventory and the hundreds used by international customers abroad.

Mike Gibbons, F-15 program manager for Boeing, said the idea of this particular configuration came from a realization that "there is a real challenge the Air Force faces with air superiority."

Boeing's marketing theory goes something like this. The F-22 was supposed to be the air superiority backbone of the Air Force for years to come, working hand in hand with the F-35 to provide a high-end air capability. But then the F-22 program was cancelled well short of projected totals.

Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force Cchief of Sstaff, acknowledged the challenge caused by the curtailed F-22 fleet in an exclusive interview with Defense News.

The F-35, Welsh said, "was never designed to be the next dog fighting machine. It was designed to be the multipurpose, data-integration platform that could do all kinds of things in the air-to-ground arena including dismantle enemy, integrated, air defenses. It had an air-to-air capability, but it was not intended to be an air-superiority fighter. That was the F-22."

For Boeing, the argument then is that an upgraded F-15C can help bridge the gap left by the F-22 cutback, at least until the next-generation air dominance program comes online in large numbers — around 2040.

Which isn't to say upgraded F-15s will replace the F-22. Indeed, Boeing is expressly positioning the system as an integrated capability with the F-22, thanks to its Talon HATE program.

Speaking to reporters last week in St. Louis, Boeing executives gave a first glance at the pod, which is on contract with the Air Force for 4 EMD pods. The pod is designed to allow easy data transfer between F-22 and F-15, built around the Boeing "Phantom Fusion" computer system.

Gibbons confirmed the Talon HATE pod is part of the upgrade package being discussed. He added that while the pod comes with an IRST capability, it is not the long-range IRST being discussed for the 2040C package.

Backlog orders on the F-15 line currently run out in 2019. While denying that means the end of the F-15 line in St. Louis, Gibbons did acknowledge it puts pressure on the Air Force to decide whether it wants these upgrades or not "in the next few" budget cycles.

Gibbons also said the work is largely non-evasive, with the exception of EPAWSS — which is already planned to be installed across the fleet in the early 2020s. That would provide an ideal window to do other depot work, he noted.

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, acknowledged that a capability upgrade would be nice, but that a service life extension program, or SLEP, is more important.

"When we look at the stress tests we've done on the f15c and were doing on the f15 and f16 there are issues were gonna have to do for service life extension with respect to the structural integrity of the airplane, so were working on those and what were gonna have to do in the future,

"If I could find a way with resources, I would do everything I could when we put those airplanes in to do a service life extension program and fix the structural issues, I would do everything in my power to try to do capabilities upgrade at the same time," he said. "I will try to do as much of that as I can find the resources."

As to how much a SLEP program would cost, Carlisle said the analysis is underway but "we know it's a pretty significant bill in the billions of dollars."

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

Twitter: @AaronMehta