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Air Force wants eight upgraded Boeing fighters along with F-35s

Guardsmen from the 142nd Maintenance Group recover an F-15 Eagle upon its return from a flying mission, Feb.14, 2019, at Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. The U.S. Air Force's next budget will request funds for eight new F-15s.

U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: February 19, 2019

The U.S. Air Force's next budget will request funds for eight new F-15 fighter-bombers from Boeing Co., beefing up its inventory with an upgraded version of a plane it last bought in 2001, even as it pursues the more advanced F-35 from rival Lockheed Martin Corp.

The F-15s will be proposed in the fiscal 2020 budget, expected around March 11, as the first of a potential 80-plane purchase over the next five years, said people familiar with the Air Force's plan.

Even though the request has White House support, it's likely to raise questions from skeptical lawmakers about why the Air Force, which has spent years saying it needs the "fifth-generation" F-35, now wants more F-15s as well.

Boeing has kept its F-15 production line in St. Louis going with continued sales to allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The new F-15X for the U.S. would be a variation on planes sold to Qatar but would be able to carry heavier loads of air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons than current F-15s, or the F-35s.

With its internal weapons carriage, the F-35 probably can't accommodate planned heavier weapons, such as hypersonic missiles that are now under development. On the other hand, the F-15X would lack the technological advances of the F-35, including its stealth profile to evade the most advanced Russian and Chinese air defense systems, as well as its sophisticated sensors and data-sharing capabilities.

The Air Force will propose buying the F-15X without reducing the fleet of 1,763 F-35s that it has long planned, the people said. The service would purchase 48 of the 84 F-35s that were called for last year in the Pentagon's plan for 2020, with the remainder going to the Navy and Marines, according to program documents.

Still, Lockheed has been quietly reminding lawmakers and congressional staff of its arguments for the F-35 as the better choice, including through a "fact sheet" distributed in December. That was followed by an attack on the F-15X by five senators who wrote President Donald Trump last week calling the Boeing plane "outdated."

"The U.S. Air Force fighter budget is unlikely to grow by much, so the fear is that replacing the F-15 fleet, rather than upgrading the old F-15s, would take cash away from F-35 procurement," Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia, said in an email.

Boeing said in a statement that it's "ready to provide a highly survivable advanced variant of F-15 to the Air Force at an affordable cost." A spokesman for the Air Force declined to comment on the proposal until the president's proposed budget is released.

The planned F-15X purchase originated from an assessment of the Air Force's needs by career analysts in the Pentagon's independent cost assessment office. It's won favor from White House budget officials who agreed it would fill a niche for an aircraft capable of carrying a heavy load of ordnance, according to one of the people.

Chicago-based Boeing has offered the aircraft, including engines, for about $80 million per plane under a fixed-price contract with the first deliveries to come in 2022. By comparison, the F-35 from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed is estimated to cost $89 million each in the latest contract with a goal of $80 million by 2020.

Lockheed's December "fact sheet" said the F-15X would cost $90 million each and have less range, acceleration and time to remain over a target than the F-35.

Lockheed spokesman William Phelps said the document was prepared for a Dec. 13 congressional briefing and was consistent with ones the company has produced for years comparing the F-35 to older fighters.

Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed's chief executive officer, told analysts in January that she's hearing "directly from leadership in the Pentagon" that the F-35 is "well-supported across-the-board" so it wouldn't be affected by a potential F-15 purchase.

Still, two of Lockheed's strongest congressional supporters, Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, drew up the letter to Trump warning against underfunding the F-35 that's built in their state in order to buy the F-15X.
 

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