U.S. Close to Approving Massive F-15 Sale to Israel: Why Tel Aviv Wants New Fighters Urgently

The United States has reportedly come close to approving the sale of up to 50 F-15 Eagle heavyweight twin engine fighters to Israel, under a contract estimated to be worth up to $18 billion. At $360 million per fighter, these will be some of the most costly fighters ever exported, with the F-15 having significantly higher production and operational costs than the only other fighter class currently being produced for the U.S. Air Force the F-35A. Although lacking the F-35’s stealth capabilities, the latest variant of the F-15 the F-15EX is prized as by far the longest ranged fighter class in service in the Western world. While still much shorter ranged than most Russian and Chinese fighters currently in production, including Su-35 fighters recently sold to Israel’s regional rival Iran, the F-15’s relatively long range is still valued by Israel as a facilitator of potential strikes against targets on Iranian territory. Although the F-15 is by far the oldest fighter class still in production anywhere in the world today, having first flown in 1972, the F-15EX boasts what may well be the most powerful fighter radar in the Western world the APG-82, and cutting edge avionics and weaponry paired with a modern high composite airframe. 

Israel last acquired F-15s in the 1990s with the purchase of 25 F-15I strike fighters, forming a single squadron, although it acquired several dozen older F-15A, B, C and D models during the Cold War. Israel’s F-15s are by far the oldest fielded anywhere in the world, and largely rely on obsolete AIM-7 air to air missiles and radars while lacking access to many modern classes of guided weapons that the F-15EX can deploy. New F-15s sold to Israel are expected to differ from those being produced for the U.S. Air Force, and integrate locally produced avionics and weapons. The U.S. Department of State has sent an informal notice to two congressional committees urging them to begin legislative consideration, with five separate sources having stated an F-15 sale is currently under consideration. Although Israel’s economy has contracted very considerably due to ongoing hostilities with Palestinian militia groups in the Gaza Strip, billions of dollars in American military aid to the country, which receives more than any other than Ukraine, is expected to offset many of these costs. Israel is reported to have made sent an official Letter of Request for 25 F-15s as early as January 2023, with the option for 25 more, with House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul having approved the deal in late January 2024 and notified relevant congressional offices. 

During a visit to Washington in the final week of March Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant called for F-15 deliveries to be accelerated, although America’s ability to deliver the aircraft remains in serious question even if much needed F-15EX acquisitions by the U.S. Air Force itself are delayed to expedite the transfer. F-15 deliveries have faced multiple delays, with the fleet having stood at just two aircraft in early 2023 when Israel first expressed interest. It is likely to take at least until 2032 for delivery 50 aircraft to be viable. This contrasts to the Cold War era when Israel received its first F-15s, at which time the U.S. defence industrial base was considerably larger and fighter production was far less prone to delays. The Israeli Air Force has enjoyed a surge in spare parts for its F-35 fifth generation fighter fleet allowing them to increase the intensity of operations against targets in Gaza and neighbouring Lebanon and Syria. The F-35 benefits from a number of unique avionics features as well as stealth capabilities, but is hampered particularly for contingencies for a high intensity conflict with Iran by ongoing performance issues and by its much more limited range.