The Air Force hasn't bought an F-15 in over a decade, but Boeing is getting its plant ready to build them just in case
By JACOB BARKER | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: April 22, 2019
ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — It’s been 15 years since Boeing’s north St. Louis County plant churned out an F-15 fighter plane for the Air Force.
Orders from Singapore, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia have since sustained a manufacturing line that has built more than 1,500 of the fighters over nearly five decades. Boeing held production artificially low in an effort to keep the line running, adding on new orders when it could.
Now, the fighter’s original customer has a renewed interest, and Boeing isn’t wasting a moment to ready its F-15 production line for a fresh round of orders.
“The biggest ask from our customer, the Air Force, is rapid field deployment,” said Prat Kumar, a Boeing vice president and program manager of F-15 programs. “Unless we kind of invest ahead of the opportunity, we won’t be in a position to respond to that. As you can see we are putting an effort into getting ready.”
As the U.S. military continues its move toward stealth fighters, namely Lockheed Martin’s F-35, the days of the F-15, a fighter jet first developed in the early 1970s, seemed limited. Now, it may have a new lease on life with a surprise $7.8 billion budget request from the Air Force that included eight F-15s next year and 72 in the four years after that.
Even though a budget containing a fresh order of F-15s tricked out with modern defense, radar and operating systems has yet to make it through Congress, Boeing is readying itself and a production line that employs some 1,100 people.
On Tuesday, engineers and manufacturing experts huddled in a conference room off of the F-15 assembly floor rearranging models of the production line in an effort to find the most efficient way to put the fighter together. As a huge 2009 F-15 order from Saudi Arabia wraps up in the coming months, 36 more F-15s will move through the St. Louis assembly line en route to the Arab Gulf nation of Qatar, part of a $6.2 billion 2017 order that Boeing has already started.
Soon, the production floor will have to share space with models of the Air Force’s new T-X training jet, the $9.2 billion contract Boeing won in late September. Already, it’s building roughly one F-15 a month, but Boeing officials say the line can be upped to produce two to three of the planes a month with minimal modifications.
“With all the improvements we’ve done to the F-15 over the years, there’s more interest in the F-15,” said Andy Stark, manager of F-15 assembly. “We’d rather get ahead of the need versus waiting for the need to happen. So we’re doing these studies so that way when the need occurs we’ve already got the business case and we’re ready to pull the trigger.”
Generations of workers have helped assemble the F-15 fighters over the years. Some workers said they’ve been building the planes for nearly 40 years, with employees working on the plane — albeit one the company continuously modernizes — that their grandfathers did.
“It’s really a piece of the St. Louis heart,” Stark said.
Improvements to the manufacturing process that help keep costs down and improve reliability often come from the mechanics on the line, he said. Several are patent holders. One, Bridgeton resident Alan Fiquette, 57, has worked on the F-15 for over 30 years and holds a patent for a drill tool he developed.
“I build hot rods at home, so this is like the ultimate hot rod,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a little more expensive.”
Congressional battle looms
Though not stealthy like the newer F-35, Boeing touts the affordability of the F-15 and new upgrades in its defense and electronic warfare systems. The new model, which Boeing is branding as the F-15EX, is also 50 percent cheaper per flight hour to operate, Kumar, the F-15 executive said.
Many of the upgrades to the jet have already been made, with what Boeing says is $5 billion worth of new investment made over the years by foreign customers.
“The good news is this is a continuous line, so if the budget goes through, we would be in a position to take a couple of jets on the existing line and convert them over for the U.S. Air Force next year,” Kumar said. “As far as fighter programs go, that’s lightning speed.”
But Boeing’s win could come at the expense of its competitor, Lockheed Martin, which makes the stealthy F-35 that is supposed to become the main fighter for the Air Force. In the budget request submitted to Congress last month, the Air Force cut its F-35 request to 48 from 54 from fiscal year 2021 through 2023, Bloomberg reported.
That’s despite reports suggesting the Air Force did not initially request the F-15s in its budget but was pressured to include them by the secretary of defense’s office.
“You say all sorts of things when you’ve been taken hostage,” Richard Aboulafia, a longtime military aircraft analyst for the Teal Group, said of the Air Force’s new F-15 orders. “I’m hard-pressed to meet anyone who wore Air Force blue who is not now in government who really likes this idea.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office is expected to release a report soon on whether Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan improperly promoted the products of his old employer: Boeing. He had a 30-year career at Boeing and assumed the helm at the Defense Department following Jim Mattis’ resignation in December. Some reports have indicated Shanahan disparaged the F-35 program, though he is far from the first official to criticize that program’s cost and delays.
“I’m not expecting them to find any smoking gun there,” Aboulafia said. “That is not going to be what kills this. It’s going to be the F-35 caucus.”
Even before the Air Force detailed its request, five senators from states where the F-35 is produced, including longtime member of GOP Senate leadership Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sent a letter to President Donald Trump and Shanahan warning not to fund the F-15 at the expense of the F-35.
Thus far, Missouri and St. Louis’ congressional delegation have been relatively quiet about the F-15 proposal. A spokesman for Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents the area where Boeing’s plant is, said the congressman is supportive.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee, called the F-15 program “critical” to the country’s defense.
“With the aging F-15 C/D fleet in need of a replacement, the F-15EX is the most cost-effective alternative to meet readiness targets, address rapidly evolving threats, and avoid capability gaps that no other tactical fighter in the inventory can fill,” Blunt said in a statement.
Aboulafia suspects some in the Pentagon like the idea of propping up the military aviation industrial base in St. Louis as a counterweight to Lockheed Martin. He expects the Air Force to move forward with at least some F-15 purchases, maybe about 30 of the jets over a couple of budget cycles. It may depend on whether more money can be found to buy more F-35s than are in the budget now, placating that program’s supporters.
“My impression is this lasts as long as the Trump administration does, which might be a while,” he said. “Might be a couple fiscal years. It might be six more fiscal years... They appear to be making this a high priority, and even though Congress controls the purse strings, the administration can be pretty forceful when it comes to getting its priorities across.”
Even if the plan falters in Congress, the F-15 line in St. Louis is secure through the end of 2022 while the Qatar order is filled. Unlike the past, Kumar said Boeing executives aren’t worried about the program’s imminent shutdown. Like before, foreign orders could always keep the manufacturing line running for another decade.
“The world looks to what the U.S. Air Force does,” Kumar said. “The very fact that the Air Force has requested it in the budget has already fueled a significant amount of interest.”
A group of South Korean military officials was in the plant Tuesday. The country has bought the jet in the past, but it doesn’t have any open orders now.
“We’re always selling,” said Stark, the F-15 assembly manager.
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