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​F-15E Strike Eagles sit on the flightline on March 15, 2019, at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. Industrial base decisions drove the choice of the F-15 over other fourth-generation fighters. Air Force photo by SrA Victoria Boyton.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had little to do with the Pentagon Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office's push to buy new Boeing F-15s in the Air Force’s fiscal 2020 budget—a move the service ultimately allowed—because of worsening fighter fleet shortfalls, a senior defense official said March 22.

CAPE deemed a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters as an acceptable way to achieve needed capacity, and the F-15 was picked over Lockheed Martin's F-16 in order to nurture the fighter industrial base, he explained at a background briefing with reporters.

The official said he wanted to provide context for the F-15 decision because it has sparked so much interest and raised questions. Many, including a group of Republican senators, believe money spent on new F-15s could instead help buy more fifth generation F-35s. The Air Force has maintained for nearly 20 years it would not buy any new fourth-generation aircraft because they couldn’t survive against enemy air defenses in the coming decades.

CAPE staffers “came to the table and said, ‘Look, we need to re-look at the mix because of those capacity shortfalls and affordability issues,’” the official said last week. The Air Force is struggling with capacity because F-15s and other older jets are aging out of the inventory, he added.

“We can simply buy more capacity with a mix of planes … than we can if we went to an all fifth-gen portfolio,” he asserted.

In addition to the F-16, Lockheed Martin also continues to improve the F-22. It has enjoyed a monopoly on new-build USAF fighter production since the 1990s. Before Boeing won a string of high-profile military contracts last year, Lockheed had a similar streak that led to the coining of the phrase “Lockheed fatigue”—meaning some were concerned the company was netting too many major contracts.

While the official didn’t mention Lockheed by name, he defended the choice of the F-15 by saying it is “desirable” to have as many qualified sources for future competitions as possible.

“If you look at something as important as the tactical aircraft industrial base, and [as] we look forward into sixth-gen production and competition … maintaining diversity in that industrial base is going to be critical,” the official said.

Nevertheless, “the DOD remains fully committed to the F-35,” he added. “We need that plane for the future high-end fight.”

“The F-15 is never going to be a stand-in weapon,” the official allowed, but “a stand-in weapon with sensors communicating back to a standoff platform that carries a lot more munitions is a pretty powerful combination.” The F-15 carries more munitions on its racks than the F-35 can internally, but the two are comparable when counting the F-35’s external stations and capacity.

The official said that CAPE worked with “internal cost estimates on the prices” of the F-15 and F-35 in its deliberations. He said he was unaware of any fixed-price offers from Boeing, saying he has not “paid much attention to the acquisition side of the house.”

Other options for the standoff mission exist. The official acknowledged that the Air Force is “absolutely pursuing” both the concept of an arsenal plane and munitions-carrying standoff drones, “particularly for the heavier munitions for which we’re going to need greater legs and greater weight,” but suggested the F-15 is a nearer-term solution to the capacity problem.

He also said putting the money against a new, perhaps smaller bomber than the B-21 would expand the Air Force's penetration capability, but would do nothing to address “base defense in the Pacific” or “homeland defense” missions which must also be addressed under the National Defense Strategy.

The F-15 is also potentially applicable in “counterterrorism … or defensive postures,” he noted.

“There is a mission set for which we do need the capabilities” of a tactical aircraft, he asserted, “but for which we don’t need a penetrating aircraft that’s more expensive.”

The Air Force agrees that the F-35 costs more to operate than the F-15, the official said, and that’s why a mix of the two makes sense. When a reporter asked if the calculus would change if the F-35’s unit cost and sustainment cost falls substantially below that of the F-15 in the coming years, the official simply replied, “we would welcome that programmatic outcome.”

And although the Block 3F is the baseline version of the F-35, “until Block 4 is complete, anything we buy in the interim will have to be retrofitted,” adding further cost, the official asserted. However, from his perspective, there’s no correlation between “concerns over Block 4 [F-35] modernization and the decision to buy the F-15X.”

The F-15s will be “additive” to the Air Force’s budget, he also noted. The service “could not afford” to buy 72 F-35s called for in its “The Force We Need” force-sizing construct that was released last fall.

Even if the F-15X winds up being a two-seat aircraft, the additional manpower costs still make it cost-effective, the official asserted. A source close to the issue said the nomenclature F-15CX would apply to one-seat versions of the new airplane, while F-15EX—as it is called in the Air Force budget—refers to a two-seat model.

The genesis of the new F-15 buy came in a report done at Congress’ behest in 2016, the official said. The Pentagon was tasked to complete a “fighter force mix assessment,” and CAPE undertook that study in collaboration with the services.

“The report showed that through the 2030s, a mix of penetrating assets and standoff munitions would meet the needs” of the DOD, the official noted. It was incorporated into last fall’s budget reviews.

By October, “the Air Force had agreed with our analysis, and had come to the table,” the official said. The service approved of the plane's pricing and capacity, and—recognizing the need to address mix issues—the Air Force agreed to buy the F-15. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the idea in late fall. It was CAPE, not Mattis, that “brought the idea to the forefront,” the official added.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan didn’t have any involvement in putting the new F-15s in the budget, the official argued.   

“We worked with the [Standards] of Conduct Office,” he said. “We put in place a pretty strict regime, of keeping anything related to Boeing out of [Shanahan’s] purview during the budget review process.”

While Shanahan was “involved in broad capability … or broad force-shaping discussions, when it came to any specific platform involving Boeing, those conversations were held strictly away from him,” the official continued.

Discussion of the right fourth-gen platform followed quickly after deciding to pursue a mix of capabilities.

“The conversation turned to, ‘How are we going to maintain a robust industrial base?’” the official said. “For the future of [the DOD], it’s going to be good to have multiple providers in the [tactical air] portfolio, and that’s what led our way into the F-15X decision.”

It was not a preordained decision, he insisted: “We didn’t look directly at Boeing.” The choice followed Mattis’ approval of the mix idea, he said.

Nevertheless, the official said without elaborating that the industrial-base consideration was not the “tipping point” in the decision. Asked if industrial-base concerns will increasingly drive procurement choices, the official said DOD does generally “think about capability development or investment profiles.”

He added he was unaware of any White House involvement during the decision-making process.