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US Air Force awards $9M contract for up to 18,000 iPads

It was announced on Friday that the US Air Force Air Mobility Command had awarded a $9.36 million contract to purchase up to 18,000 iPad 2s slated for use in the military arm's cargo aircraft.

The contract was given to Phoenix, Arizona-based computer service company Executive Technology Inc. on Thursday, and is the first step in the Air Force's plan to replace existing paper-based flight bags with so-called electronic flight bags (EFB), reports Bloomberg.

The announcement confirms a previous report that the Air Force was planning the buy for its transport and refueling wing, which called for "minimum of 63 and a maximum of 18,000 iPad 2" units or "equal devices."

Military spokeswoman Captain Kathleen Ferrero said that AMC will use the 32GB Wi-Fi version of Apple's tablet as EFBs aboard a variety of cargo aircraft. She went on to say that the command has already purchased 63 units that will be used for testing when they arrive sometime in the next 30 days.

Ferrero said the contract price per unit came with a substantial discount which dropped the tablet's $599 retail price down to around $520.

In all, 24 companies placed bids for the lucrative military contract, with the command's final decision being based in part on which firm could offer the lowest price. Ferrero declined to name the companies involved, or if Apple itself took part in the bidding process.

"It was open to everybody," Ferrero said. "We weren't going to any specific vendor."

Although the $9.36 million contract is earmarked for the purchase of iPad 2s over the span of one year, the order is "contingent upon funding requests and approval," meaning that the Air Force doesn't necessarily have to buy all 18,000 units.

Air Mobility Command's plan to ditch paper flight bags for digital alternatives echoes moves from the private sector as carriers like Delta and American Airlines are currently in the process of making the switch to EFBs.

While traditional flight bags contain heavy manuals, maps and charts, EFBs offer a tablet-based package that results in fuel cost savings and improved efficiency. The Federal Aviation Administration first approved Apple's iPad 2 for the task in July, 2011, and numerous commercial airlines have tested and implemented the solution in the intervening months.

Ferrero said that the military will use the tablet to allow its crews to meet Pentagon efficiency goals, and help navigators and pilots operate more effectively on the flight deck.

“Aircrews fly nonstop worldwide missions and require access to flight publications both on and off the aircraft, throughout all phases of flight,” Ferrero said. The iPad 2 fits that need in a small, easy to carry package.

The news comes on the heels of the Air Force's Special Operations Command's recent decision to cancel an order of 2,861 iPad 2s, reportedly nixed over security concerns regarding a Russian-made app included in the proposed EFB.