The Air Force is considering retiring its F-15 C and D fighter aircraft and replacing them with F-16s.
In a House Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., asked Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard, about plans to retire its 236 F-15 C and D Eagle fighters as a cost-saving measure, and filling their role with F-16 Fighting Falcons. Rice confirmed that was under consideration.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said that proposal was news to her, and asked Maj. Gen. Scott West, the Air Force's director of current operations and deputy chief of staff for operations, if there had been any decision made on retiring those fighters.
West said nothing was official yet, but said the Air Force is looking for ways to maximize the use of its limited resources, and minimize the number of systems it operates while still accomplishing its mission. West and Rice both said the proposal to retire some F-15s is "predecisional." There was no discussion of the F-15E Strike Eagle.
Rice said the F-16s potentially filling the role vacated by F-15s would receive radar upgrades.
The Air Force is now planning for fiscal 2019, Rice said, but a decision on retiring the F-15C and D would probably not be made this year. Which means those planes would not retire until fiscal 2020 at the earliest.
But replacing the F-15 C and D — a fighter primarily focused on air-to-air operations — with the F-16, which also has air-to-surface capabilities, would raise questions. The F-15 C and D, which entered the Air Force's inventory in 1979, carries up to eight AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. The F-16, on the other hand, can carry up to six air-to-air missiles or air-to-surface munitions. Both planes carry the M-61A1 20mm multi-barrel cannon, but the F-15 can carry 940 rounds of ammunition to the F-16's 500.
"Clearly, these are two different types of aircraft with different capabilities," Wilson said.
When asked if replacing the F-15 Eagle with the F-16 would have a negative effect on air superiority and present risks, Rice said it can be handled.
"There's a risk in changing any of our force structure decisions," Rice said. But, he added, "there are capabilities we can add and provide on the F-16 that will [fill] a gap as we go into the future. Overall, our readiness and our protection of the U.S. will change, but I think overall, we will be OK."
McSally said that before the F-22 came online, the F-15C was probably the best air-to-air plane around. She compared the F-16 to a "decathlete" that can handle multiple types of combat at a lower cost, but said that even with upgraded radar, it wouldn't have the same air-to-air capabilities as the F-15C.
She also expressed concern about what such a shift would do to aircraft readiness, considering that the Air Force is already facing a pilot shortage.
"We're already in a readiness crisis," McSally said. "If you're now retraining everybody to another aircraft, in the midst of a crisis, that does have a bit of a short-term dip in readiness as well. With us being down to 55 fighter squadrons, we've just got to be careful on how that transition would happen, should this decision come to fruition."
West said there will be some "offline" time as the Air Force moves from one air frame to another. But the advantage the Air Force now enjoys over nations such as China and Russia is lessening, he said, and such a modernization shift must happen sooner rather than later.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek later said that eliminating the F-15 C and D is not a done deal. Stefanek noted that the Air Force has also proposed eliminating the A-10 in multiple budgets, but the Warthog has survived.
"We're always looking at force structure options for the future," Stefanek said. "Until it is something that we put in our budget as a proposal, it's just another option that could be pursued. Just because it's an option doesn't mean we'll pursue it."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.