Key point: The USAF bought its last F-15 in 2001, but foreign sales have kept Boeing’s production line humming since.
For nearly three decades, the F-15 Eagle fighter was considered the undisputed king of the skies. Until the debut of its replacement, the F-22 Raptor, the F-15 was the U.S. Air Force’s frontline air superiority fighter. Even today, a modernized Eagle is still considered a formidable opponent, and manufacturer Boeing has proposed updated versions that could keep the airframe flying for the better part of a century.
The F-15 traces its roots to the air war in Vietnam, and the inauspicious showing of American Air Force and Navy fighters versus their North Korean counterparts. Large, powerful American fighters, designed to tackle both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, were performing poorly against their smaller, less powerful—but more maneuverable—North Vietnamese counterparts. The 13:1 kill ratio American fliers enjoyed in the Korean War dropped to an abysmal 1.5 to 1 kill ratio in Vietnam.
Contemporary fighters, such as the F-4 Phantom, had been designed under the assumption that the air-to-air missile had rendered dogfights obsolete, and with them the need for superiority maneuverability and a gun for air combat. The U.S. Air Force decided it needed a dedicated air superiority fighter, one that combined two powerful engines, a powerful radar, a large number of missiles and a gun. Above all, it had to be maneuverable enough to win a dogfight.