The U.S. Air Force has awarded a contract to acquire its first fourth-plus-generation F-15EX fighter aircraft from Boeing Co.
The service said Monday that the nearly $1.2 billion contract will cover eight jets, including initial design, development, test and certification, plus spare parts and support equipment, training and technical data, and delivery and sustainment costs.
"The F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleets," Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, said in a release. "The F-15EX is ready to fight as soon as it comes off the line."
In January, officials posted a presolicitation notice with the intent of awarding two sole-source contracts, one for the F-15EX and the other for its F110 engines. The move initiated the Air Force's first fourth-generation fighter program in more than 20 years.
Last month, the Air Force awarded General Electric a $101.4 million contract for the first, unspecified number of engines; however, Pratt & Whitney -- which makes the current F-15 Eagle engine -- can also submit designs at its own expense after the company pushed back on the service's sole-source objective.
According to Boeing, the F-15EX will be able to "launch hypersonic weapons up to 22 feet long and weighing up to 7,000 pounds." The company has said the fighter will be equipped with better avionics and radars and could carry more than two dozen air-to-air missiles.
"The F-15EX is the most advanced version of the F-15 ever built, due in large part to its digital backbone," said Lori Schneider, Boeing's F-15EX program manager. "Its unmatched range, price and best-in-class payload capacity make the F-15EX an attractive choice for the U.S. Air Force."
The service said the aircraft's most significant upgrade will be its open mission systems architecture, allowing the plane's software to be upgraded and installed more easily compared to its aging F-15C/D cousin, which the service has been on a quest to replace.
Officials voiced concerns in 2017 about the older Eagle model's longevity.
"We are already having serious problems with that airframe, with metal fatigue within the longerons on the side of the aircraft," then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a forum in May 2019.
Senior defense officials with the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office told reporters that they arrived at the Boeing-made F-15EX decision because the aircraft would help keep a "robust industrial base" and provide "a higher-capacity" combination alongside Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Air Force expects to keep a well-rounded mix of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft through the 2030s, including the F-35A, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-15 Eagle/Strike Eagle, officials have said.
"One of the considerations was the diversity of the industrial base," a senior defense official said at the Pentagon on March 22, 2019. "Maintaining a diverse industrial base is in the best interest of the Department of Defense. The more diversity, the more competition ... and the better prices we have."
The Air Force plans to purchase a total of 76 F-15EX aircraft over the five-year Future Years Defense Program, known as the FYDP, officials said Monday. It intends to build an inventory of at least 144 aircraft over the next decade.
The first eight F-15EX aircraft will be based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, for the testing wing at the base. The first two aircraft are expected to be delivered in fiscal 2021, and the remaining six in fiscal 2023, the release states.
"When delivered, we expect bases currently operating the F-15 to transition to the new EX platform in a matter of months versus years," Holmes said.