In this era of flying stealth supercomputers like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor, many have questioned the wisdom of purchasing a slew of new old fighters. The F-15EX does not boast any stealth capabilities, nor does it have the same knack for sensor fusion that has earned the F-35 the unofficial nickname of “quarterback in the sky.” Despite this apparent lack of capability, the Air Force is procuring F-15EXs at a cost of around $87.7 million each, as compared to the now lower F-35 price of just $77.9 million per aircraft.
This price differential only emboldens the F-15EX’s critics, who point out that the F-35 offers a far wider variety of capabilities and is considered much more survivable in contested airspace (thanks to its stealth capabilities). When you only consider those figures, the F-15EX may seem like a pretty poor choice.
However, the reality of military acquisitions and combat capability are far more nuanced than a side-by-side tale of the tape might represent. While the F-15EX may indeed cost more per airframe than the latest batch of F-35s, it may actually be the savvier purchase. The F-35 is intended to have an operational lifespan of around 8,000 hours, whereas each F-15EX is expected to last 20,000. In other words, in order to fly the same number of hours as an F-15EX, the Air Force would need to purchase not one, but three F-35As.
That price reduction is further bolstered by operational costs. Keeping a high performance fighter in tip-top shape is expensive and time consuming, but in that portion of the ledger, the F-15EX once again shines. The Air Force expects to spend around $29,000 for every hour the F-15EX is in the air, far cheaper than the F-35’s figures recorded in 2018 of around $44,000 per hour. Now let’s do a bit of back-of-the-envelope math to assess how much these aircraft will actually cost in a fight.
The F-15EX costs $87.7 million per aircraft, and can fly for up to 20,000 hours at a cost of $29,000 per hour. So $29,000 per hour x 20,000 hours + $87.7 million for the aircraft comes out to a pretty serious $667.7 million dollars.
In order to match that operational lifespan, it would take three F-35As. So the math would look like $44,000 per hour x 20,000 hours + $233.7 million for three F-35s… and it comes out to more than a jaw dropping $1.1 billion. The F-15EX, then, offers a saving of around $446 million per aircraft over the lifespan of the jet (if things were this simple, anyway).
To give the F-35 a slightly more realistic shake, let’s use larger volumes of aircraft, rather than 1:1 comparisons. The Air Force plans to purchase at least 144 F-15EXs, but for the sake of simple math, let’s call it 100. The above per-aircraft cost times a hundred comes out to $66,770,000,000 spent on aircraft and 2,000,000 flight hours. You would need 250 F-35s to match the same flight hour total, which combined with operating costs come to $109,925,000,000. In this more realistic comparison, the F-15EX offers a less pronounced advantage, but still comes to the tune of some $43,155,000,000 in savings over the span of the program. $43 billion is certainly nothing to scoff at.
Now, it’s important to note here that this math is egregiously simplified: Lockheed Martin and the Air Force are already working tirelessly to reduce the operating costs of the F-35 (because the Air Force says they can’t afford them if they don’t).
The cost per hour of the F-35 is sure to drop in the years to come — and just as importantly, the F-35 is a stealth platform built largely to engage ground targets. The F-15EX, on the other hand, is an air superiority fighter designed to duke it out in the skies. Both of these aircraft are capable of either role, but at a fundamental level, these jets simply aren’t built to do the same jobs. It might help to think of them as NASCAR and Formula 1 racers: Both are extremely capable platforms, but they’re each highly specialized for their specific use. The new F-15EXs the Air Force buys won’t fill F-35 spots, but will instead replace aging F-15s in America’s existing arsenal.