The U.S. Air Force on July 13 awarded Boeing [BA] 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.

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.

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 says 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.

While the Air Force had not budgeted for F-15EX in the past, Air Force and Boeing officials said that it became apparent that conducting a service life extension program for the F-15Cs and F-15Ds would be more costly than replacing the legacy aircraft.

The F-15EX will replace the oldest F-15C/Ds in the service’s inventory. Eight F-15EX aircraft were approved in the FY ’20 budget and 12 were requested in the FY ’21 budget.

Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command, said in a statement that 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.” The service 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.

“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.

The Air Force said that the F-15EX, unlike the F-15Cs and Ds, has an Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture, which will permit the rapid insertion of the latest aircraft technologies. “The F-15EX will also have fly-by-wire flight controls, a new electronic warfare system, advanced cockpit systems, and the latest mission systems and software capabilities available for legacy F-15s,” the Air Force said.

Air Force officials believe that OMS will mean a significantly quicker ability to integrate new weapons, including the hypersonic 7,000 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.

In addition, the F-15EX is to have a cockpit that is significantly more advanced than that of the F-15C/D and that leverages $5 billion in technology investments by foreign customers of the F-15, including South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Air Force Acquisition Chief Will Roper said in the Air Force statement that “the F-15EX’s digital backbone, open mission systems, and generous payload capacity fit well with our vision for future net-enabled warfare.”

The first eight F-15EX Lot I aircraft are to be fielded at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to support testing efforts. Delivery of the first two aircraft is scheduled for the second quarter of fiscal 2021. The remaining six aircraft are scheduled to deliver in fiscal 2023.