Boeing‘s [BA] F-15EX fighter had its first flight on Feb. 2 in anticipation of “early delivery” of the first two jets to the U.S. Air Force later this quarter, the company said.

Matt “Phat” Giese, Boeing’s chief test pilot, flew the plane for 90 minutes before returning to land at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Boeing said.

Last July, the Air Force awarded Boeing an almost $1.2 billion contract for the first lot of eight F-15EX fighters. Under the terms of the agreement, the Air Force could award Boeing nearly $22.9 billion over 10 years for 200 F-15EXs to replace F-15Cs and Ds in the service inventory (Defense Daily

, July 13, 2020).

The Air Force has budgeted for 76 F-15EXs in the Future Years Defense Plan. Boeing last delivered an F-15–an F-15E Strike Eagle–to the Air Force in 2004.

The F-15EX will replace the oldest F-15C/Ds in the service’s inventory. Some 235 F-15Cs and Ds are flying air defense missions–most of them Air National Guard units, and the Air Force FY ’21 budget request said that the service plans to buy a minimum of 144 F-15EXs. Some of the units with F-15Cs may receive Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35s.

Prat Kumar, Boeing vice president and F-15 program manager, said in a statement on Feb. 2 that the F-15EX “is capable of incorporating the latest advanced battle management systems, sensors and weapons due to the jet’s digital airframe design and open mission systems architecture.”

“The fighter’s digital backbone means it can serve as a testbed for future technology insertion, a key capability for the Air Force. Modern variants of the F-15 also include fly-by-wire flight controls, an all-new digital cockpit, modern AESA radar and the ADCP-II, the world’s fastest mission computer,” per Boeing. “The F-15EX, the most advanced version to date, features the Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System  [EPAWSS] electronic warfare system to improve mission effectiveness and survivability for operators.”

While Boeing has said that the unit cost of the F-15EX will be about $80 million and on par with the cost of the F-35, a Heritage Foundation report  last September said that the Air Force budget indicates an $87.7 million per unit cost for the F-15EX–$9.8 million more than for the conventional F-35A and a baseline that requires the addition of two subsystems–the BAE Systems‘ EPAWSS and the Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pod–to be combat ready.

Those additions would bring the unit cost of an F-15EX up to $102 million, $24.1 million more than a combat-ready F-35A, Heritage said (Defense Daily, Sept. 11, 2020).

In July, the Air Force awarded Boeing a contract to build the first lot of eight jets. Future plans call for as many as 144 aircraft.

Boeing said that equipment on current F-15Cs, such as fuel tanks, Sniper targeting pods, and Lockheed Martin Legion infrared search and track (IRST) pods for air-to-air targeting in radar-denied environments are fully compatible with the F-15EX so the Air Force can simply transfer those systems from F-15Cs to F-15EXs without having to buy new materiel.

The first eight F-15EX Lot I aircraft are to be fielded at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to support testing efforts. The remaining six aircraft in Lot I are scheduled to deliver in fiscal 2023.

Air Force officials believe that an Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture for the F-15EX will mean a significantly quicker ability to integrate new weapons, including the hypersonic 7,500 pound, 22-foot-long AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) by Lockheed Martin on weapon station 5, the center line of the F-15EX. (Defense Daily, July 6, 2020)

Boeing said that it has been doing hardware and simulator work to allow the accommodation of the weapon on the aircraft center line.

While the Heritage Foundation report said that the Air Force should nix its F-15EX buy in favor of more F-35s, Boeing said that the F-15EX will be able to outperform even 5th generation aircraft in some areas–total ordnance volume, carriage of hypersonics weapons, and the OMS. The F-15EX has a one gigabyte fiber system to all the weapons stations and electronics to allow quick integration of new technology, per Boeing.

While the Air Force had not budgeted for F-15EX in the past, Air Force and Boeing officials said that it became apparent in 2019 after a report by DoD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office that conducting a service life extension program for the F-15Cs and F-15Ds would be more costly than replacing the legacy aircraft.

The Air Force has said that the F-15EX is the most affordable and fastest way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by the aging F-15C/D fleets. The service has said that the plane requires minimal transition training or additional manpower and little to no infrastructure changes. Buying more F-35s may have required additional resources for things like low-observability maintenance, per the service.