"We're not backing away from the F-35 in any way, shape or form," said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service's military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon. "We are invested in the program."
"When our budget hits, you will see all of that," Bunch told an audience at an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C., adding that the Boeing-designed F-15X is still a predecisional concept. "The F-35 is critical for what we've got to do in order to execute the missions of the National Defense Strategy … and operate in … a future threat environment."
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Bunch said it's clear, however, that the Air Force's fourth-generation aircraft fleet, including the F-15C, continues to decline.
"And we are getting to the point that we have to make a decision of how are we going to either upgrade it … or what's the path going forward," he said.
Officials have considered retiring the older F-15C/D fleet. In 2017, officials told lawmakers they were looking at plans to retire the two models as early as the mid-2020s.
If there is enough funding, "we will buy some [new] F-15s to replace those," Bunch said Friday.
The service currently has 235 C/D models, according to the Air Force Association's 2018 aircraft inventory almanac.
Bunch's statements echoed those of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who last week told Defense News that the older F-15C/D models likely won't last into the 2030 timeframe.
However, the service will not reallocate resources from the F-35 to the F-15X, Goldfein said.
"I'm not backing an inch off of the F-35," he said.
Bloomberg Government reported in December that top leadership will ask for more than $1 billion to buy roughly a dozen aircraft. The request would mark first addition of a new F-15 model to the Air Force inventory in nearly 20 years.
Before he became acting defense secretary, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other top leaders floated the F-15X proposal, which would produce a fighter equipped with better avionics and radar and capable of carrying more than two dozen air-to-air missiles.
At Lockheed, which builds the F-35, officials don't seem worried about the potential competition.
"If they chose to have an order on F-15, it won't be at the expense of F-35 quantities," Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said Tuesday during the company's quarterly earnings call.
"I'm hearing that directly from leadership in the Pentagon, and I think that's an important point to make, not just our suspicion, but I've been told that directly. So I'm not concerned about that," she said, as reported by DefenseOne.
Bunch concurred, saying future procurement, upgrades and sustainment programs remain unchanged.
"We are buying [the F-35] throughout the years," he said. "We are doing what we need to be able to do to address that future threat."