The Air Force’s newly released budget request for Fiscal Year 2024 includes funds for an extra 24 of its brand-new F-15EX Eagle II fighters, bringing the number it anticipates buying to 104. But behind the scenes, Sandboxx News has learned that plans are shifting as the service balances the training needs of these fourth-gen plus Eagle replacements with those of its fifth-generation F-35A lightning jets amid a changing world.
Kingsley Field, an Air National Guard base in Klamath Falls, Oregon, was publicly tapped in 2020 as the future training schoolhouse for the F-15EX. Since Kingsley already flies F-15C/D Eagles, taking on this training mission made practical sense. It was also a prize mission for a small and little-known airfield in Eastern Oregon.
Compared to the Eagle, the F-15EX has nearly 30% more payload, a pair of new weapons stations, and a full complement of up-to-the-minute technology – all for a relatively affordable flyaway cost of $80 million. For the Air Force, the Eagle II is intended to fill a crucial gap as the legacy Eagles reach retirement age.
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“Being selected as the F-15EX formal training unit is an outstanding mission for the 173rd Fighter Wing,” Col. Jeff Edwards, 173rd FW commander, said in a 2021 Air Force news release following the Eagle II’s first flight.
“Kingsley is simply an outstanding place to train pilots. The community support is just incredible, and we have some of the best training airspace anywhere. We have a culture of fighter training–we have been in the training business for over three decades, in the F-4 (Phantom), F-16 (Fighting Falcon), F-15C (Eagle), and now soon to be F-15EX.”
But a release from the 173rd Fighter Wing last month contained a warning that circumstances were changing as the Air Force prepared to take on future global threats and responded to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s “sense of urgency about our efforts to modernize.”
“At Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Ore., the ripple effects of this urgency are evident. Kadena [Air Base, in Okinawa, Japan] is relinquishing its fleet of F-15C aircraft and sending them to the 173rd Fighter Wing, where maintainers are prepping them for backfill to other units or retiring them to sunny Arizona in the ‘boneyard,'” the release stated. “In their stead, a rotating force of fighters, including fifth-generation aircraft, will bolster air superiority in the Pacific Theater.”
At the same time, the release continued, the Air Force was making plans to re-evaluate Kingsley Field’s “infrastructure and airspace suitability” for its next mission.
“In 2020, it was announced that Kingsley Field would transition to an F-15EX mission, but due to the strategic focus in the Indo-Pacific Command theater, this plan is being reconsidered,” the release stated.
A Department of the Air Force spokesperson confirmed to Sandboxx News that plans were in flux, and a final decision has yet to be made.
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“Several agencies are scheduled to visit in the next few months to gather information that will help determine the Department of the Air Force’s decision regarding what mission will be best suited for the 173rd Fighter Wing,” the spokesperson told Sandboxx News via email. They added that plans have not changed for the Portland Air National Guard Base, which is set to become the first operational F-15EX squadron in 2025.
It’s not entirely clear why a strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific would call the location of the F-15EX training mission into question.
“The discussions that I’ve heard, it’s all focused on priorities,” Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Shirar, a spokeswoman for the 173rd, told Sandboxx News in a phone interview. “Is putting the training base at Kingsley Field the right priority for us, or can we be better filled to do something else… We have a great team here that the Air Force definitely is recognizing as something that they can leverage for whatever mission they need.”
Shirar acknowledged rumors that changing plans might place F-35s at Kingsley Field instead, noting that a squadron of Joint Strike Fighters from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, the 63rd Fighter Squadron, traveled to the base last fall to take advantage of rural eastern Oregon’s vast open airspace. A repeat training engagement is already planned, she said.
“With different airframes, theres’s always going to be some infrastructure change, but we have a great team here that’s always ready to jump in and do whatever the force asks,” she said.
Among the mysteries to be revealed is what other base might take on the F-15EX training mission if Kingsley Field receives another tasking. As The Drive has written, having a dedicated schoolhouse for a relatively small aircraft fleet – at times the number of F-15EXs the Air Force has planned to buy has dipped as low as 80 – represents unwieldy cost and infrastructure. But the newly announced increase in planned airframe purchases may mitigate that issue.
In addition to Portland, Air Guard bases that may receive F-15EX include Barnes Airport, Massachusetts, Fresno Yosemite Airport, California, and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, according to the Air Force’s 2020 announcement.
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