In the wake of news that Boeing’s F-15EX will cost more than expected, company officials say they’re hunting for ways to keep the fighter jet’s price tag down.
“We’re looking at ‘how do we buy at scale’. We’re looking at ‘how do we partner with suppliers for long-term affordability’. We’re looking at ‘how do we control our own costs in the factory, whether that’s kind of infrastructure cost or whether that’s efficiency that we can continue to build in?’” Mark Sears, vice president of fighters at Boeing, told Defense One.
Three years ago, Boeing officials confidently predicted a per-plane flyaway cost of under $80 million. But they backed away from that earlier this year. In September, when the Air Force signed a contract for Production Lots 2 through 4—a total of 48 jets—officials said the per-plane cost for jets in Lot 2 was about $90 million.
Now the per-plane price is expected to be $97 million in Lot 3 and $94 million in Lot 4, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek confirmed. Breaking Defense first reported the cost of the new F-15EX contracts.
“Today’s economics and inflation and workforce instability—all of that is real and so we’re trying to be as proactive as possible about how do we try to overcome that or at least stem the growth in the future,” Sears said.
Sears didn’t say whether the flyaway cost could return to $90 million in future production lots.
“Our focus is to remain affordable,” he said. “It’s hard to look into the future and understand exactly what the market economics will do.”
Boeing officials hope that foreign militaries will place orders for the F-15EX, which could help control the cost. Indonesia has said it wants “up to 24” of the aircraft, while company officials are working up a response to an inquiry from Poland.
Asked if the jet will cost foreign customers about $90 million per tail, Sears said “each international configuration does have some uniqueness.”
The new data shows the F-15EX to cost more than the Air Force is paying for its F-35s, which were once the poster child for uncontrolled cost growth. The cost of each F-35A in production lots 15 through 17, to be delivered in 2023, 2024, and 2025, is $82.5 million, according to F-35 Joint Program Office spokesperson Russ Goemaere.
When armored with a new electronic warfare suite, called Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System, or EPAWSS, Sears said the jet would have comparable survivability to an F-35 and other stealth aircraft.
Proponents of the program have said the jet will be useful in areas where the threat is less severe, such as homeland defense.
But even with EPAWSS, the F-15EX is still a fourth-generation fighter and its capabilities pale in comparison to the F-35, said John Venable, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“We’re paying more and we’re getting something that’s markedly less than the value of the F-35,” Venable said.
F-15EX proponents have said part of the program’s value is propping up the defense industrial base; Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the last two U.S. companies that build fighter jets.
Venable noted that Lockheed’s F-16, at $63 million apiece, would be less expensive than the F-15EX. The F-16 is currently only made for foreign militaries.
The Air Force plans to buy enough F-15EXs to replace some but not all of its aging F-15C/Ds. The service initially planned to buy at least 144 F-15EXs; that target was cut to 80 in the Biden administration’s 2023 budget and partially restored to 104 in the 2024 proposal.
Boeing has delivered two out of eight Lot 1B jets, and will deliver four of those this year and the last two early next year, Sears said.