Boeing [BA] is preparing to deliver its first two F-15EX jets to the U.S. Air Force, as company officials said that the unit cost of the fighter is to be $80 million, on par with the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, and $22 million less than projected by a Sept. 8th Heritage Foundation report.

That report said that the Air Force budget indicates an $87.7 million per unit cost for the F-15EX–$9.8 million than for the conventional F-35A and a baseline that requires the addition of two subsystems–the BAE Systems‘ [BAESY] Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (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.

“I can be very categorical that the EPAWSS is very much included in the price of the jet we have offered to the Air Force,” Prat Kumar, Boeing vice president and F-15 program manager, told reporters on Sept. 11 in advance of the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space, and Cyber conference next week.

In 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).

“The first delivery order on this ID/IQ contract is awarded to us in a UCA structure–undefinitized contract action–so the final price has to be negotiated, but we are confident that, given the price we offered, the aircraft unit price with the engines, sensors, radar, EPAWSS, and everything that goes in the jet will be $80 million,” Kumar said.

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.

“Right now, we have two production [F-15EX] jets on the factory floor,” Kumar said on Sept. 11. “The first jet is already at the customer delivery center–called the ramp, going through the final installations. Then it will go through a checkout, some ground testing, and first flight. We are on contract to deliver the first two jets by first quarter of next year. So far we are tracking to that timeline.”

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.

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 F-35s.

The Air Force said that the F-15EX, unlike the F-15Cs and Ds, has fly-by-wire flight controls and an Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture, which will permit the rapid insertion of the latest aircraft technologies, whether that be software or hardware.

Air Force officials believe that OMS 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)

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 last year after a report by DoD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation 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 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.

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.