The roar of engines creates a wall of sound on the tarmac as our six person go-cart rolls to the flightline. The chilly January air rushes past in the open cabin of the suped-up golf cart while the small lower-pitched motor whines to drown out the last frequency of talkable bandwidth for the short drive.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Wee sits in the driver’s seat and points out several landmarks until we reach our stop. Two F-15s sit across from one another.
One has a full complement of mechanics taking off the conforming fuel tank, giving the plane extra range to strike farther into enemy territory. Its dark gray fuselage mixes in with the slightly overcast weather on Eglin Air Force Base.
But our plane sports a lighter gray color – a nod to the fact it is here to replace the F-15 Cs – a relic from the Reagan Era.
The first of the F-15EXs has arrived at Eglin – and Lieutenant Colonel Wee and his adjutant on today’s trip, Captain Richard Macias, are responsible for pushing the planes to their limits and getting the aircraft integrated into the Air Force for the next war the United States will fight.
The F-15 EX is the latest version of the F-15 Eagle, named the Eagle II by Air Force Brass. The plane has served in every field of combat since the late 70s. The plane (also known as a ‘platform’ in Air Force parlance) can attack targets in the air and the ground and, like its predecessors E and C, works as the ‘light duty truck’ of the Air Force’s Arsenal. It’s not as stealthy and cannot survive combat in non-permissive environments (read: anti-air radar can easily track it) like the F-35 and F-22 can. Still, this upgraded plane can unleash a lot more hate in the form of additional missiles and guns the stealth fighters can’t boast.
“I wanted to fly the F-15 E when I was commissioned. I [thought to myself] ‘That airplane does the most out of any plane and carries the broadest range of weapons,’ Wee said; it’s like a utility truck. And a good one at that, like a really nice one.”
About 15 years ago, the Saudi Government came to the developer of the F-15 and the U.S. Government and asked them to create a serious upgrade in the plane’s capabilities for them to use in their Air Force.
The Royal Saudi Air Force ended up footing the lion’s share of the $5 Billion bill for the upgrades to the plane. In exchange, they got the rights to buy some of them – but only after the U.S. Air Force approved its allocation of fighter jets.
The First six to roll off the line came to Eglin to join a testing unit. The other planes will go around the country to various squadrons for immediate use. As of January 2024, all six have made it to Eglin.
The older models from those squadrons will get shifted down to the reserve and guard units – who will send their Abba and Van Halen-era models to the boneyard. The oldest of the models, the F-15 Cs, could only be used as air-to-air platforms, meaning they could only fight and destroy other planes for the most part. Just in time, too – some of the older model F-15 Cs are aging faster than the government expected them to – leading to incidents like the one that crashed a plane in Missouri in 2007. “They found corrosion in the airplanes that they weren’t expecting,” Lieutenant Colonel Wee said.
The F-15 Es, the Strike Eagles, debuted on the international stage in the first Iraqi war to critical effect – and included plenty of air-to-ground capabilities. Smoldering Soviet-made T-79s littered the highway from Kuwait City to Basra and Baghdad – courtesy of the F-15’s lethal capabilities against the Iraqi Republican Guard and regular army units.
The Saudis decided to buy these new F-15s, as did the Qataris.
However, the issues with the United States’ older models combined with the production time of the F-35 fighters meant the Air Force was getting close to the minimum mandated amount of fighters Congress requires the Air Force to have.
Congress’s mandate meant Air Force leadership had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid flying below that line. That’s when they decided to co-opt the Saudi-founded program and buy a bunch of F-15 EXs to make up the difference. “Ultimately, the Office of the Secretary of Defense said, ‘You are doing this,'” Wee remembers.
The U.S. Air Force jumped to the front of the line and will have 140 new F-15s when all is said and done. Each new plane will cost between $90 and $97 million – slightly more than the cost to build a new F-35. The ‘Lightning II,’ as the stealth jet is known, costs about $82.5 Million per plane to build.
The St. Louis, Missouri-built F-15’s versatility gives the plane its longevity in the Air Force. Top brass believes they will keep the aircraft in the rotation for the U.S. military until at least 2050. The plane can handle air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Manufacturing F-15 EXs in addition to F-35 allows the Air Force to maximize the number of fighters its adding to their ranks according to Lieutenant Colonel Wee.
The upgrades to the plane include interfaces like screens, fly-by-wire systems without wires (making it better able to take a hit from the enemy and keep flying), and a cool step ladder that deploys from inside the plane.
(I’m not actually sure if that’s new, but it’s really awesome and worth noting.)
The new plane can do 800 knots, fly at higher angles of attack than previous models, and carry a much larger payload than stealth fighters can. You can strap a hypersonic missile to the side of an F-15 and send her off to do battle. It can shoot missiles at targets from a safe distance – mitigating the weaknesses from its lack of stealth capabilities.
Still, the lack of stealth does hamper its abilities. “This airplane is not survivable [in close combat],” Lieutenant Colonel Wee said. He added that the plane can’t fly against ‘near peers’ (I’ll leave you to guess who that means) because they can effectively stop non-stealth aircraft in close combat. “But the F-15s can be a huge force multiplier, with the portfolio of fighters we have, by killing targets from the outside,” Wee argued.
The test team will continue figuring out the limits of the new fighter in Eglin Air Space. Wee and his fellow test pilots will conduct operational (‘Does the thing work?’) and developmental (‘Did we build the right thing?’) tests with the 40th and 85th test squadrons.
Most of the tests the two squadrons execute will happen during the day – so don’t look for an increase in nighttime noise from the EXs.
Captain Richard Macias, the program’s project manager, comes from a military family, so the abilities this plane has to protect people on the ground, in the air, and back home matter deeply to him. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s one I enjoy having as a team,” The Texas Aggie said, “We like serving our country, and we like trying to put the best product out there so that if our guys need it – they’re going to have something that’ll work.”
A sentiment Lieutenant Colonel Wee and the rest of the team share.
“People are bending over backward to try and do the right thing to get these capabilities out quickly. From my standpoint, it’s really quite motivating. It’s a privilege to work with these guys, because they’re a hell of a lot smarter than I am. And they make my job a lot easier,” Wee said, “We have got to continue to modernize our force, and we’ve got the right people doing the right things to make things happen.”
Now that all six aircraft have made it to the Eglin Reservation, they can begin testing with full battle formations, says Captain Macias. The full squadron means they can expand their testing to “do more representative tests and missions” for more real-world-like data, according to Macias.