No, Israel's Interest In Buying New F-15s Isn't A Referendum On The F-35
The F-15 provides unique capabilities to the IAF, and considering production could end in the coming decade, buying more F-15s now may be a necessity.
Reports from Israeli media stating the Israeli Air Force could be leaning towards buying new F-15 Strike Eagle derivatives instead of F-35s have resurfaced in recent days. This has led some to conclude that such a move, if it does indeed occur, would be some sort of knock against the F-35, or even more inaccurately, a validation that the 40 year old F-15 design remains "superior" to that of the leading-edge and stealthy Joint Strike Fighter. These assumptions couldn't be any further from the truth.
The backstory here is fairly simple, the IAF needs to decide what jets it wants to procure under the first part of a massive ten year aid deal that the Obama Administration established with Israel which goes into effect later this year. The IAF has already ordered 50 F-35Is, which are unique in certain ways among other Joint Strike Fighters.
That order equates to two squadrons worth of stealth fighters. Another batch of 25 F-35Is would give the IAF another squadron, but there is far more to the IAF's decision making process than just buying what is considered the newest or even the most advanced fighter available. It's about force mix and what missions certain aircraft would need to carry out during a number of contingency operations, including an air war over Iran.
Israel's love affair with the F-15 dates back to the very early stages of the type's operational life. Israel was the first to convert the F-15 into a multi-role platform, using the jet as a long-range strategic asset to pulverize targets far from Israel's borders. The F-15 "Baz" has since continued to morph into an ever more essential fixture within the ranks of the IAF fighter fleet.
Today the IAF's F-15A/B/C/D fleet has been reworked to a standard uniquely suited for the air superiority, reconnaissance, strike, and even the command and control and communications node roles. Make sure to read all about the F-15's incredible history serving with the IAF and its adaption into a multi-role platform in this past feature of mine.
The IAF needs the F-15 so bad, especially two seat D models, that it continues to totally refurbish and adapt surplus USAF D models—the first Ds ever built—into the IAF's unique configuration—and this comes at great cost. You can read all about this ongoing program here.
Keep in mind that these are older F-15 "Baz" models, not the F-15I "Ra'am" (Thunder) fleet of jets that were acquired in the late 1990s. The F-15I is a derivative of the F-15E Strike Eagle, and was the IAF's most advanced and capable fighter aircraft prior to the F-35I being declared operational just weeks ago.
Over the years these jets have also received multiple upgrades and feature highly capable electronic warfare and networking capabilities. But with only one squadron in service—just 25 jets—they are few in number, especially considering other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia, is acquiring a fleet of dozens of even more advanced F-15 aircraft (F-15SA) and is converting older Strike Eagle (F-15S) derivatives to a similar advanced configuration.
So even though the IAF has a large F-15 fleet overall, the vast majority of these aircraft, all but 25 to be exact, were built well before 1986 and have been reworked dramatically, some of them multiple times over.
Today the F-15 production line is putting out an aircraft that is far more capable than even the F-15Is that were delivered 20 years ago. Boeing generally calls this aircraft the "Eagle Advanced," but Qatar, which is ordering dozens of these aircraft, will call theirs the F-15QA. These new variants feature many changes to the original F-15E design, including a digital fly-by-wire system, the activation of weapon stations one and nine on the jet's outer wings, an AESA radar, a digital electronic warfare system, missile approach warning system, new single glass panel cockpit layout, and the list goes on and on.
But regardless of these new capabilities, and even though the F-35 can go places the F-15 can't, is drastically more survivable for missions in highly contested territory, and has a bunch of features even the most modern Eagle lacks, the F-15 still offers a longer combat radius, can be modified more easily, and maybe most importantly, it can accommodate two crewmen instead of one.
The F-15's endurance and two-crew configuration allows it to carry out unique roles that the F-35 can't, and that's not a knock against the F-35, as it can do many things the F-15 cannot. For most air forces the F-35 would do fine as a single fighter solution, but for the IAF and its unique battle doctrine, this simply isn't the case at this time.
Flying very long range missions, delivering precision standoff munitions with man-in-the-loop terminal guidance, and the ability act as a central networking node and tactical command and control platform aren't really F-35's forte—at least when compared to Israel's two seat Eagle derivatives—nor could the F-35 be easily adapted to compete for these roles in the near term. But the F-15, working as a force multiplier of sorts in these roles, can help the F-35 do its job even better, and both jets can leverage synergistic tactics in the air-to-air and air-to-ground realm.
So for the IAF, the question is not about "which is the better fighter?" or some cheesy and irrelevant debate like "which jet wins in a fight?" Instead it's about planning a total force mix and how to get the very most out of the resources available in order to best accomplish the missions the IAF thinks it will face in the future.
The fact that the F-15 production line won't soldier on forever is another major factor, as well. Once the jet is out of production that's it, so now is a great time for the IAF to beef up its F-15 force for the decades to come. On the other hand, the F-35 will be in production for decades, and future F-35s will only be better than the ones being delivered now in every single respect, likely including their price tag.
Finally, the price difference between the two jets is not really a factor as the unit cost of the F-35I or an updated F-15I derivative will likely be very similar, and Israel has established infrastructure to support both types already.
So no, Israel's potential interest in procuring more F-15s over more F-35s at this time has nothing to do with the F-35's effectiveness or even its capabilities one way or another. In the IAF's eyes they are something akin to apples and oranges to a certain degree.
In the end, Israel is sure to buy more F-35s—they have stated they plan on acquiring at least 75—it just may not be immediately. And considering what they use the F-15 for and how the type is likely entering into the twilight of its production run, buying more F-15s is probably more of a necessity than a choice at this particular time.
So it all comes down to what tactical fast-jet type does the IAF need the most in order to accomplish the missions it might need to carry out in the not so distant future. This includes gauging what aircraft will create the biggest impact on the IAF's total force—the vast majority of which isn't made up of stealth fighters—not simply which aircraft is a "better fighter" judged in a vacuum.
Commander Major General Amikam Norkin of the IAF is to submit his recommendation on which jet to buy to the General Staff in May of this year. We will keep you posted as to how the issue progresses.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com