The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the US Air Force is considering permanently grounding dozens of F-15 fighters. The entire F-15 fleet, almost 700 fighters, was grounded back in November when one F-15 broke up during a simulated dogfight; 440 older model F-15s are still out of service and the Air Force plans on returning only 260 of those to action. The remaining 180 are believed to have a serious structural flaw in the beam that serves as the spine of the plane. Newer model F-15s are used in combat missions, currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, but older models, including those unlikely to return to the air, are used to patrol US territories.
The grounding of a large part of the F-15 fleet has a large impact on strategic readiness of the US Air Force, and comes in the midst of a on-going debate over the future of the USAF and the newest air platform, the F-22 Raptor, designed to replace the F-15 and the F-16. The F-22 is a extremely impressive plane. From the F-22 team website:
Stealth Capabilities –Much of the debate surrounding the F-22 concerns this last point. The Air Force has long been claiming that it needs the F-22 to maintain the air superiority that is so critical for US combat forces in the field. The Defense Department and Congress, however, has been skeptical of claims that the F-15 and F-16 are not up to the task. To date, the USAF has requested 381 F-22s, but DoD has only authorized (subject to congressional approval) 183.
First and Only 24/7/365 All-Weather Stealth Fighter
See Without Being Seen
- Radar signature approximately the size of a bumblebee, thereby avoiding detection by the most sophisticated enemy air defense systems
- Signatures/emissions of sound, turbulence, and heat that can aid detection are reduced
- Requires no direct assistance from electronic support aircraft that may be more easily detected
- Includes planform alignment of the wing and tail edges, radar-absorbing sawtoothed surfaces, an engine face that is concealed by a serpentine inlet duct, "stealthy" coating cockpit design to minimize the usually substantial radar return of pilot’s helmet
- Through internal weapons placement, the F-22 eliminates multiple surface features that could be detected by enemy radar
The air threat to the United States now and in the future is real.
- The F-22 possesses a highly stealthy signature that greatly reduces the enemy’s ability to find, track and target — permits access to defended areas that cannot be accessed by nonstealth platforms
- First look/first kill in all environments: A combination of improved sensor capability, improved situational awareness and improved weapons provides first-kill opportunity against the threat
- The F-22 possesses a sophisticated sensor suite that allows the pilot to track, identify and shoot the threat before it detects the F-22. Significant effort is being placed on cockpit design and avionics fusion to improve the pilot's situational awareness. Advanced avionics technologies allow the F-22 sensors to gather, integrate and display essential information in the most useful format to the pilot
- Advances in low-observable technologies provide significantly improved survivability and lethality against air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. The F-22's combination of reduced observability and supercruise accentuate the advantage of surprise in a tactical environment
- Current Russian fighters are already on par with America’s best fighter, the F-15. Europe's and Russia's newest class of fighters will surpass the F-15; they are set to roll off production lines by 2005
- At least three foreign aircraft threaten to surpass the F-15’s performance in the near future: the French Rafale, the Eurofighter 2000 and the Russian Su-35. Some foreign aircraft are already at parity with the F-15
- Nations are already denying America access to airspace around the globe by obtaining low-cost, but sophisticated, surface-to-air missile systems
- Highly capable surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems pose a formidable challenge to the F-15’s survivability. Advanced SAM systems, because of their relatively low cost, are a quick and easy way for countries to modernize their air defense systems
- Estimated twenty-one countries will possess the most advanced systems by 2005
Assuming the Air Force is not being extra-cautious with the F-15s to encourage the purchase of more F-22s (such an assumption shouldn't be seen as an indictment of the Air Force, but rather a recognition of the way in which bureaucratic incentives affect decision making), the structural problems emerging in the F-22 does seem to recommend increasing the complement of F-22s. The F-15s are now, on average, 25 years old, and the F-16s are even older. The F-22 will keep the US Air Force unchallenged in the skies and will serve as a deterrent against potential rivals attempting to challenge US air superiority. Air dominance is such a vital component of US military strategy; it would be unacceptable to let the gap between the US and other states' air forces shrink. Not all military systems are worth the investment. But the F-22 is.