Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why Boeing should offer up the F-15SE to Canada.

Please, Boeing...  Pretty please.
For those of you who might have missed it, the Ottawa Citizen's Defense Watch blog posted another three-part thesis on why Canada should adopt the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle to replace the CF-18.  The article can be read here:

Part 1
Part 2 
Part 3

The author, Kristopher D. Lorelli, makes some great points.  The trouble is, Boeing has not seen fit to offer up the Silent Eagle to Canada.  Instead, it is offering up the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.  This does make sense, as the Super Hornet can be seen as a logical replacement to legacy Hornet.  It would also likely be a easier sell given the Super Hornet's reputation as an affordable and reliable workhorse.

The F-15 on the other hand, was already passed over once by the Canadian government, when the smaller, newer, and (most importantly) cheaper F/A-18 was selected.  If Canada didn't select the F-15 back when it was still in its prime, why would it select it now when it is over 40 years old?

Because the F-15 Eagle was, and still is, the most effective fighter flying today.

Still badass.  The F-15C.
I know what you're saying...  "What about the F-22?"  With only 187 built, and far less than that actually flyable at any given time, the USAF's F-22 fleet needs to be carefully rationed out.  Despite being in service for almost 10 years, the F-22 has been conspicuously absent from any and all USA military engagements.  It didn't fly over Afghanistan, Iraq, nor Libya.  

Why bother sending the F-22 to handle a 3rd and 4th tier threats, anyway?  Right?  Will, when Russia began their occupation of Crimea a short time ago, what fighter did the USA send over to potentially butt heads with its Cold War adversary?  The F-15C Eagle.

That's right, the 42-year-old F-15C is still the USAF's "go-to" air superiority fighter.

As well it should be.  The F-15 has a combat record of 101 wins and zero losses.  It has earned this record in multiple campaigns being used by multiple air forces.  Kosovo, Iraq, Lebanon, the Syrian border clashes of 1979-1981...  The F-15 has been there, dominating airspace.

F-15J
The F-15 isn't just the preeminent fighter of the USAF, it has become the flagship fighter for Israel (F-15I), Japan (F-15J and F-15DJ), and Saudi Arabia.

If that wasn't enough, when the USAF went looking for a FB-111 replacement, it didn't have to look very far.  Despite being designed with the mantra "not a pound for air-to-ground", the F-15 was rather easily converted to a tactical strike fighter to be known as the F-15E Strike Eagle.
A few pounds for air-to-ground, the F-15E
The Strike Eagle has been successful in its own right.  Like it air-superiority focused brother, the Strike Eagle has been in demand.  It currently serves in South Korea (F-15K "Slam Eagle"), Singapore (F-15SG), and Saudi Arabia (F-15S and soon the F-15SA).

Altogether, over 1,600 F-15s have been ordered over the years.  

Does this mean that the F-15 is past its prime?  A Cold War leftover?  Obsolete?

F-15J with IRST (it's that ball thingy at the base of the cockpit)
Absolutely not.  

Much like the Su-27, which has been continuous upgrades to become the Su-30 and Su-35 (among other variants), the F-15 has proven to good at what it does to simply throw away.  Despite its age, the F-15 will continue to receive modern, cutting edge upgrade well into the foreseeable future.  Upgrades like AESA radar, IRST, helmet mounted displays, and other avionics upgrades.

The rational behind planning so many upgrades for a 40-year old fighter design is simple:  The F-15 will fly well into the 2030s and beyond.  The Eagle is an incredibly rugged and durable aircraft.  Whereas the F/A-18 had a planned service life of 6,000 flight hours, the F-15C is rated for 9,000.  This itself may be an understatement, as the USAF is currently studying the possibility of extending that to 18,000.  The F-15E may in fact be good for as many 32,000.

Even if Boeing received no more orders for F-15s, there are enough in the pipeline to continue production until at least 2018.  The outlook for Typhoon and Super Hornet production aren't so rosy, despite the relative "newness" of their designs.  

F-15SE's CWB (conformal weapon bay)
2018 may not be the beginning of the end for the F-15.  Boeing has been marketing its F-15SE "Silent Eagle" to current F-15 operators.  The F-15SE is as much a step beyond the F-15E as the Strike Eagle is to the F-15A.  AESA radar, fly-by-wire controls, internal weapon storage, and radar absorbent skin.  The Silent Eagle will utilize removable CWB (conformal weapons bays) in order to be configured for both stealthy and non-stealthy layouts.


This doesn't have to be the end of the Silent Eagle, however.

By most accounts, the F-15 would be an excellent fighter for Canada.  It is rumored that the RCAF insisted on a two-engined design for the New Fighter Aircraft Program in order to steer the selection process towards the F-15 Eagle (the F/A-18 would be selected instead).  I've argued before that the F-15 may indeed have been a better choice.

When comparing the F-15SE to the current contenders to replace the CF-18 (F-35, Typhoon, Super Hornet and Rafale), the Silent Eagle still stands out.  It has a significantly longer range and higher payload.  It has most of the requisite high-tech avionics.  It may not be a true "stealth" fighter like the F-35, but the Silent Eagle's optional internal weapon carriage makes it "stealthier" than some options while still making no compromises in performance.

Proposed F-15SE cockpit.
There is one major caveat, however.  Cost.

Boeing currently estimates the F-15SE to cost about $100 million per copy, but the true cost of the Silent Eagle would likely depend on how many are ordered and what proposed upgrades actually make it to production.  What we do know is that Boeing was willing to sell 60 F-15SEs to South Korea for $7.3 billion ($122 million each) including initial support, training, etc.  It's likely Canada could purchase 65 for less than the $9 billion allotted for F-35 acquisition.

Operating costs are the major hurdle, however.  Long-term costs usually dwarf the original procurement budget.  We have to pay to keep these fighters flying after all.

The F-15 is a big, expensive aircraft with two very big engines that burn a lot of fuel.  Current cost per flight hour in the USAF is about $35,000/hour, slightly more for the older F-15C.  This isn't too far off from current F-35 estimates ($32,000/hr), however.  Given the F-15's capabilities, this may be money well spent, especially considering the airframe's longevity of up to 32,000 flying hours compared to the F-35's planned 8,000.  

Any takers?
So why isn't Boeing offer up the Silent Eagle to Canada?  

The Super Hornet may be an easier sell given its lower price tag and commonality with the RCAF's current CF-18 fleet.  It is by no coincidence that Boeing is marketing the F-15SE to those with F-15 capable infrastructure already in place.  There would also the perceived "downgrade" of going from the numerically higher F-18 to the F-15, making some think that we may be taking a step backwards with an older aircraft design.

While I admire the Super Hornet's ability as a "workhorse" multirole fighter, I think the F-15SE would be a better choice for Canada in almost every respect except cost.  The F-15 is a more capable fighter with a wider user base.  Its production is guaranteed until 2018 and planned upgrades will keep it relevant well into the 2030s and beyond.  

If Boeing is unable to keep the Super Hornet line running, the Silent Eagle may in fact be its "plan B" Canadian offer.  

Maybe they should take a page out of Sukhoi's book first though, and change the number to indicate a more modern fighter. 

Call it:  "The CF-25 Silent Eagle".

9 comments:

  1. Can the F-15s be re plumbed for probe and drogue? If not, we'll have the same issue of air to air refuelling as with the F-35.

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  2. The F-15SE or SA variant is potentially an excellent fighter for Canada with it's big land mass and 3 ocean fronts. Few planes have the range, performance and now modern electronics packages plus digital flight control.
    It's unfortunate that so many continue to think of the plane as a 40 yr old aircraft. The latest F-15 variant or proposed are evolutionary just as the SU-35 is to the original SU-27.
    A modern F-15 with modern FADEC engines would be an animal. Whether the op costs would be the same as current F-15C (per USAF) or less is the question as many the modernization of digital flight control may reduce some maintenance costs.

    The challenge is that I don't see the RCAF outfitting a full fleet of Eagles, whether that is 65 or more planes. In some ways the Eagle is too much plane for certain duties.
    The longer the issue of What replacement for the CF-18 goes on. The more I feel that a high/low or high/mid mix is the the better approach. Of course the argument about increased op costs will transpire but perhaps things are not being looked at in totality.

    What if?
    Canada purchased the following...

    36 F-15CA aircraft (a variant of the SA and SE features)

    36 Gripen NG
    Both aircraft would be available in 1 or 2 seat versions.

    I would say this would be a far more effective airforce for Canada than 65 F-35's and cheaper to purchase and operate.

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  3. It would still be an issue in regards to the CDN tanker fleet. However in joint NORAD operations of allied expeditionary, CDN planes can belly up to a US tanker.

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  4. Agreed. But our non NORAD domestic deployments would out number(I think) all the expeditionary ops and we're left with 2 CT-150s and 5 CC-130s with nothing to fuel unless, as you say, we purchased some Gripens or even Super Hornets. Or we bight the bullet and buy a couple of American tankers.
    No matter how you slice the pie it's till a pricey conundrum.

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  5. Then there is the F-35A which is not a probe and drogue airplane, which continues the problem discussion of what tanker fleet.

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  6. As much as I like the idea of an modern F-15 it's probably more likely that the RCAF would go for a fleet of ASH F-18's, with 1 seat, 2 seat, growler options. No tanker fleet issues, easier integration into current ops.
    The one thing I really want to know though is if the EPE 414 engines are real. With up to 20% extra thrust that changes the ASH-18's performance significantly.

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  7. Canuck Fighter, You are probably right with the F-18 over the F-15. Although, if DND is willing to write off the tanker fleet for the F35 what is the long term planning for them anyway? Maybe they want to retire the fleet because they don't use them?
    This is the problem with all the transparency/national security issues we just don't really know why they make these decisions. I wish we could do what the Swiss did and vote down the purchase until the government justifies spending our tax money.

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  8. Any thoughts on the F-16V or similar F-16 variant?

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  9. I think it would be an incredibly unlikely option. Lockheed, which currently manufactures the Viper, isn't likely to offer up the F-16 to a potential JSF buyer.

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