Boeing's St. Louis F-15 program continues to soar, could add 500 jobs in coming years – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Boeing reveals its F-15QA fighter jet to a group of American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
ST. LOUIS COUNTY — These are good times for Boeing’s F-15 fighter jet line.
Dignitaries foreign and domestic crowded a hangar north of Lambert Field on Wednesday morning to see the latest version of the fighter jet built for the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Elsewhere, employees were putting together planes for the first order from the U.S. Air Force since 2001.
And the man overseeing it all said his workforce is continuing to grow to accommodate demand. There are now 1,600 people assigned to the program, said Prat Kumar, a Boeing vice president and manager of F-15 programs. That’s a gain of 500 jobs in the last two years.
“And that could double, depending on how things go,” Kumar said.
Not long ago, the F-15’s days looked numbered with the U.S. and other allies shifting to Lockheed Martin’s newer F-35 stealth fighter, built in Fort Worth, Texas. But in 2019, the Air Force requested dozens of upgraded F-15s to replace 1980s-era models, alleviate a fighter shortage and carry larger payloads the F-35 can’t. And with production ramping up, the plane has joined Boeing’s Super Hornet as a key lifeline keeping St. Louis in contention to build the next generation of fighters in the coming decade.
“If the (U.S.) had ceased buying the Super Hornet or the F-15, it would be hard to maintain the engineering teams required for that next generation,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and an executive at the Washington-based Lexington Institute.
The F-15, along with Air Force training jets and commercial jet wing parts, is also a big reason Boeing employs more than 15,000 people in Missouri — more than a tenth of its overall workforce and the most of any state outside its traditional home base of Washington state as of Jan. 1.
St. Louisans began building F-15s more than 50 years ago.
Designed by the Berkeley-based McDonnell Douglas, which was acquired by Boeing in 1997, the plane won a high-stakes competition to fill the Air Force’s need for a dogfight ace in the late 1960s. It entered full-rate production here in 1972.
The U.S. Air Force and its allies have since paid tens of billions of dollars for nearly 2,000 of them, none of which have ever been defeated in aerial combat.
But selling new versions got harder in the new millennium. The U.S. stopped buying them in 2001, and a decade later, the future looked bleak. South Korea snubbed a high-profile bid in 2013, saying it wanted a more advanced fighter. The country later purchased F-35s. That left Saudi Arabia as the lone remaining customer, and news reports suggested the line could shut down by the end of the decade.
But in 2016, Qatar reached out, and a year later, Boeing was awarded a $6.2 billion contract for 36 new planes.
When Leeanne Caret, CEO of Boeing’s defense arm, addressed Qatari officials on Wednesday, she said the deal led to work on an upgraded F-15, the EX, that got Washington writing checks again.
Kumar, the F-15 program head, later said the Qatari variant created a baseline for the EX, which has radar and other systems unique to the U.S.
“We owe you gratitude in so many forms,” Caret told Qatari officials before unveiling the plane at Wednesday’s event.
The U.S. Air Force inked a $1.2 billion contract last July for eight updated planes, two of which were delivered earlier this year. Congress passed a budget with money for 12 additional planes in December. And in its most recent budget proposal in May, the Air Force said it expects to buy 144 in total.
Kumar said that will keep the line going through the end of the decade.
It may not stop there, though. Kumar said the Air Force contract provides for the purchase of up to 200 planes depending on its need. The new American model has also attracted interest from several potential foreign buyers, he said.
Thompson, the defense industry analyst, said that makes sense.
“If the Air Force wants them,” he said, “of course some of our allies are going to take it as a signal that it’s a plane worth having.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misquoted defense analyst Loren Thompson suggesting the Air Force buys the Boeing Super Hornet.
Guests pose for photos in front of Boeing’s new F-15QA fighter jet on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Boeing reveals its F-15QA fighter jet to a group of American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Boeing’s new F-15QA fighter jet is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, following a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries listen to the U.S. National Anthem on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Boeing reveals its F-15QA fighter jet to a group of American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Boeing’s new F-15QA fighter jet is photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, following a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, Qatar Minister of State for Defense Affairs speaks to American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, during a ceremony handing over Boeing’s new F-15QA fighter jet to the Qatar Emiri Air Force. The delivery meets the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
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Austin Huguelet is the Post-Dispatch’s retail business reporter. He’s previously covered Missouri politics for the Springfield News-Leader.
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Boeing reveals its F-15QA fighter jet to a group of American and Qatari officials, guests and dignitaries on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at a ceremony formally handing it over to the Qatar Emiri Air Force as part of the U.S. Department of DefenseÕs $6.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing to build and assemble 36 Advanced F-15 fighter jets for the QEAF in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com
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