With the new F-15EX ‘4+ generation’ heavyweight fighter expected to enter service in the U.S. Air Force shortly, much the fleet is expected to be deployed to the Asia-Pacific region where American dominance had increasingly been challenged by growing Chinese and North Korean capabilities. The F-15EX is a heavily enhanced derivative of the F-15A Eagle which entered service in 1976, and while the original platform was configured exclusively for air superiority to counter a new generation of Soviet interceptor aircraft, the new variant is equally capable in both air to ground and air to air roles. The will be the most versatile in American service, and while it lacks the stealth capabilities of the fifth generation F-22 Raptor it largely compensates with much easier maintenance, more modern avionics and electronic warfare systems, and almost three times the missile payload. Unlike the F-22, which is currently considered the most capable Western fighter and has been relied on heavily to balance Chinese forces in the Western Pacific, the F-15EX is capable of carrying long range missiles for attacks on ground targets in China and Korea – introducing a number of potentially game changing capabilities if based in Japan.
The F-15EX is expected to deploy the new AGM-183 hypersonic missile for a strike role, and if based at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa it would place targets across China and Korea in its crosshairs. The fighter is the only one in the Western world which can carry the munition due to its size, with its manufacturer Boeing stating to this effect: “The F-15EX carries more weapons than any other fighter in its class, and can launch hypersonic weapons up to 22 feet long and weighing up to 7,000 pounds” – the approximate size of the AGM-183. With two F-15C squadrons currently based in Okinawa, it is likely that at least half of these will be replaced by the new F-15EX variant. Okinawa’s close proximity to the Taiwan Strait, a potential hotspot for Sino-US tensions given Washington’s informal defence commitment to Taipei, makes the threat to Chinese interests posed by hypersonic missile equipped F-15s particularly serious.
The AGM-183 will reportedly have a speed of Mach 20, making it near impossible to intercept even for Chinese S-400 air defence systems which can neutralise slower hypersonic targets, although it remains uncertain whether the American missile will actually be able to reach such speeds and when it will be ready for service. China is notably considered to be ahead of the U.S. in hypersonic technologies, and its DF-17 Mach 7 missile can potentially take U.S. airbases on Okinawa out of action before they are able to launch any fighters. China may also induct more capable air defence systems into service over the next decade such as the Russian S-500 which can intercept much faster hypersonic targets, although even this system could be seriously challenged by a Mach 20 low flying platform. The AGM-183 has been referred to by President Donald Trump as America’s ‘super duper missile’ and is relied on heavily to restore a U.S. advantage in the ongoing hypersonic arms race with China and Russia.