U.S. Withdrawing F-15C/D Fighters From 44 Year Deployment on China’s Doorstep: What Will Replace Them?

The U.S. Air Force is set to withdraw its F-15C/D Eagle air superiority fighters from Kadena Air Base in Japan, sparking criticisms from within America and raising significant questions regarding what class of fighter could eventually replace them. Located in Okinawa, southern Japan, Kadena has for decades served as a key forward base for potential military operations against the People’s Republic of China particularly in the adjacent Taiwan Strait, with its F-15s recently making headlines for escorting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s aircraft to Taipei in August. The base’s position has made it particularly sensitive as tensions between Beijing and Washington have remained high, with former  Vice Commander Pacific Air Forces General David Deptula criticising the move to end the F-15 presence on the basis that “the message to China is the U.S. is not serious about reversing the decline in its military forces. This will encourage the Chinese to take more dramatic action.” The possibility remains significant, however, that the withdrawal of forward deployed F-15s will be followed by the stationing of more capable fighters in their place on a similar permanent basis.

The F-15C/D unit at Kadena Air Base under the Air Force’s 18th Wing represents the only one permanently based overseas, with much of the remainder of the F-15C/D flying under the Air National Guard. The fighter class have seen more temporary deployments in Asia and Europe including in May 2019 when units were dispatched to the United Arab Emirates at a time of high tensions with nearby Iran. F-15s have deployed to Kadena Air Base since 1979, four years after the class first joined the U.S. Air Force, replacing third generation F-4 Phantoms which were stationed there from 1971. The Phantoms were themselves preceded by third generation F-105 jets. The fourth generation F-15C/Ds currently deployed have not seen a replacement by a new generation of fighters due to the failure of the Advanced Tactical Fighter program to provide one, with the F-22 it did produce proving highly problematic, having a significantly shorter range than the F-15, and seeing orders to terminate production given less than four years after it entered service. As a result not only have F-15C/D units been forced to fly long past their anticipated retirement dates, but enhanced F-15 variants have remained in production into the 2020s making them the oldest fighter class still being manufactured anywhere in the world. 

Although many of the Air Force’s F-15C/D units have been modernised with AIM-120 active radar guided air to air missiles, electronically scanned array radars, and other significant avionics enhancements, their viability against new fighter classes deployed overseas has nevertheless been brought to serious question. While the F-15 had an elite status when first entering service in the 1970s, this quickly diminished as the Soviet Union introduced its own fourth generation heavyweights fighters and interceptors in the 1980s which had many significant performance advantages. The F-15’s reputation was further tarnished by its defeat in its last engagement with a Soviet heavyweight, a third generation Soviet MiG-25, over Iraq in 1991, with subsequent U.S. Military assessments consistently concluding that the aircraft was very comfortably outmatched by its Soviet fourth generation rival the Su-27 – enhanced derivatives of which form much of the Chinese fleet today.

Although when F-15s first deployed to Okinawa they were technologically decades ahead of the top fighters in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, China’s emergence as the world’s largest economy from 2014, the world’s largest spender on defence acquisitions in 2020, and a global leader in many key areas of research and development, have allowed it to develop world leading aerial warfare technologies that leave F-15C/Ds near obsolete today. This includes a heavyweight fifth generation fighter program which has proven much more successful than which produced the F-22, the Chengdu J-20, which alongside the F-22’s lighter and less problematic counterpart the F-35 are the only fifth generation fighters in production and fielded in meaningful numbers in the world today. Enhanced Chinese fourth generation fighters such as the J-16 also boast very significant advantages over the ageing F-15s, with comfortable superiority in firepower and far higher endurances. U.S. congressional reports have highlighted that even China’s lightweight J-10 fighters could leave American Eagles far outmatched. Withdrawal of F-15C/D units may well thus be intended to pave the way for deployment of more capable fighters to Kadena, with an improved air superiority capability at the key location expected to be highly appreciated in Washington. 

Choices for the F-15C/D’s replacement remain constrained for a number of reasons. The F-22, although scheduled to begin retirement in 2023 and fielded in small numbers, boasts stealth capabilities which could provide an important new edge to a forward deployment force. The Raptor’s very limited ability to network with supporting assets, however, limits its usefulness in the age of network centric warfare while its exceedingly high maintenance needs leave it vulnerable to strikes on American logistics. The F-15EX, the most capable F-15 variant, would provide a major capability increase and has far superior avionics that the F-22 and the lowest maintenance requirements of any Western heavyweight fighter class. The very limited numbers in which it has been produced so far, however, means the aircraft will not be ready for immediate deployments. Its lack of fifth generation capabilities also limit its ability to ensure American parity against China’s fast growing fifth generation fleet, which has taken a growing portion of responsibility for patrolling the region.

The U.S. Air Force’s third option, the F-35A, is potentially the most promising, although the fighter is currently still very far from ready for high intensity combat due to wide ranging performance bugs – last counted at around 800 – which have been widely criticised by both U.S. officials and by the fighter’s foreign operators. A fourth option could be the deployment of America’s sixth generation air superiority fighter intended to succeed the F-15 and F-22 from the early 2030s, although with close to a decade left before the class beings to be introduced, and potentially much longer until it becomes fully operational, this remains a long term option. As the Taiwan Strait remains a key focus of tensions between Beijing and Washington, the contingent at Kadena Air Base is expected to continue to be closely observed by analysts on both sides and its future widely speculated.