The copy machine is out of service again at work. You don’t really think about how important something stupid like a copy machine is until you need it and can’t use it. In the past, new and improved pieces of office equipment would show up within a couple of days, if not hours, of the original piece breaking. Not anymore. Sequestration and all the ugliness that comes with it is making life on the ground less fun than it was to begin with. I expect the copier will sit with the “out of order” sign on it for a few weeks before a refurbished version shows up to take its place. We won’t be getting a new one.
Now take a step back and look at the aging fleet of fighter aircraft in the U.S. Air Force. Unlike copy machines, we don’t have the ability to just back fill the loss of a fighter like we did back in the production heydays of World War II. Replacing a fleet of F-15 and F-16 aircraft, some of which are in their mid to late 30s, is a fiscally daunting task. If money were no object, I’m sure we’d have several F-22 and F-35 squadrons in operation. The realities of sequestration make the thought of having large quantities of the most technically advanced and capable fighters out of the question.
So what do we do? Boeing had a great idea – don’t fix what ain’t broke! Think about this: the F-15 and F-16 designs have proven themselves in combat over and over again. Why not save on the research and development bill by simply upgrading the current design and producing new aircraft with the most recent technology and capabilities phased in?
Enter the Silent Eagle. The F-15SE (aka Silent Eagle) is a concept aircraft that has been flying for the past three years. It was meant to be marketed internationally and was pushed heavily for the South Korean FX-III advanced fighter acquisition program. The Silent Eagle is being brilliantly marketed as being survivable, adaptable, and affordable. I think this is a great approach given the world economic situation.
I imagine Xzibit from MTV showing up at Boeing as part of a new reality TV series: “Pimp My Fighter”. The F-15SE is based on the legacy F-15 design, but has been tricked out to keep up with some emerging technologies. The modifications most apparent are the canted vertical stabilizers (reduces wear and tear on the ballast while also improving fuel efficiency and range) and conformal weapons bays. Yes, they just took the conformal fuel tanks off of the Strike Eagle and turned them into weapons bays. Several other minor modifications were made to reduce the aircraft’s radar signature earning it the moniker “Silent Eagle”.
The analog flight controls have been replaced with a multi-channel digital FLCS (Flight Control System), which will reduce over-g potential and prolong the service life of the airframe. The redesigned airborne killer will sport the AN/APG-63 version 3 AESA radar – a highly capable sensor currently flying on some of the legacy Eagles. It will also carry a Sniper IRST and a BAE Systems DEWS (Digital Electronic Warfare System).
Obviously, what is marketed versus what is actually delivered is yet to be determined. But if Boeing has created a way for militaries to obtain highly capable, highly advanced fighters without breaking the bank, it should be a no-brainer right? Well, back in September South Korea basically told the Silent Eagle program to pound sand. It seems they are more interested in the “latest and greatest” – the F-35. They must be rolling deep in cash over in Seoul.
The whole situation got me thinking about the U.S. Air Force’s requirements. We have military commitments around the world in the form of combat deployments and Theater Security Packages. Most of these current commitments do not require the high capabilities of fifth generation fighters like the F-22 and F-35. Why don’t we buy a bunch of these cost-effective, redesigned legacy fighters to fill our current commitments and similar commitments of the future?
I haven’t run the numbers, but I know the cost of maintaining our legacy fleets is extraordinary. By purchasing newly produced aircraft that maintainers are already familiar with, we can significantly reduce the costs of upkeep. The cost of acquisition would eventually pay for itself with these savings. We could preserve our highest tech capabilities – like those found in our fifth-gen fighters – for when we really need them. Whatever air-to-air or air-to-ground war requires our most advanced technologies will likely require fourth-gen asset support as well, so why not ensure those fourth-gen fighters are newer and in better shape?
One of the mottos of the great depression was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!” I think American fighter producers should market their cost-effective re-designs like the Silent Eagle to our own budget-strapped Air Force. Maybe that would help get us out of the pickle we’re in.
I put it out to the Tally One Community: what do you think of refurbishing or redesigning our fighter fleet? Should we build on past success or re-invent the wheel? Please submit your comments below!