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A pair of Northrop Grumman T-38 aircraft from 560th Flying Training Squadron, Randolph AFB, TX.

T-X down to two main contenders

Although the lightweight, supersonic T-38 has been the staple advanced jet trainer for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Naval Test Pilot School for more than 55 years, the dependable aircraft is expected to be replaced by a new trainer that can better transition pilots into fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.

The USAF Air Education and Training Command first looked at replacing the Northrop Grumman T-38 in 2003 due a combination of aging airframes, budget restrictions, and an increasing technology gap—especially in information management—between the twin-engine T-38 and newer fighter aircraft like the F-22 and F-35. Per the USAF initial 2009 Request for Information (RFI), the new trainer will have to fill basic training roles (i.e., basic aircraft control, airmanship, formation, instrument and navigation, advanced air-to-air, advanced air-to-ground, and advanced crew/cockpit resource management). The RFI also outlines five advanced training roles that the system must fulfill: sustained high-g operations, aerial refueling, night-vision imaging systems operations, air-to-air intercepts, and data-link operations.

A recent exit of Raytheon, incumbent Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems from the USAF Advanced Pilot Training (T-X) program competition has left two main firms and several smaller competitors as remaining candidates to replace the T-38: a partnership between Boeing and Saab and another between Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI).

However, USAF officials are not concerned with the thinning field. According to statements from Chief of Staff General David Goldfien, an exhaustive dialogue between industry and USAF occurred before the December 2016 Request for Proposals (RFP).

"It's not surprising to me" that as the companies gained more insight into what the USAF wanted and what competitors were offering, "some of them were able to make informed business decisions … not to jump into this race," said Goldfien, and that a "longer dialogue up front" led to a more informed and "better-written RFP."

Goldfien stated USAF now has "two competitors that have a very good sense of what we're looking for. I'd be concerned right now if I had one competitor." Instead, "We've got a competition, and it's a really informed competition."

Lockheed Martin and KAI are proposing the T-50A, a modified KAI T-50 that South Korea currently employs as a trainer. The T-50 is derived from the F-16, sharing many design similarities such as a single tail fin and engine—in this case a GE F404 turbofan. Lockheed has expressly acknowledged that the T-50 was designed with the foresight to replace the T-38. Lockheed’s advantage is that it currently builds the F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation combat aircraft that the new T-X trainer will prepare pilots to fly. The Lockheed/KAI proposed aircraft will have aerial refueling capability, embedded ground training systems, and a single large-screen, state-of-the-art glass cockpit display.

Boeing and Saab’s clean-sheet offering also utilizes a single GE F404 turbofan, but instead uses a twin-tail setup. The aircraft—which touts “fighter-like” design and performance, first flew on December 20, 2016. Boeing describes the aircraft as being maintenance friendly, with high wings, easy access panels and critical components, and fewer and more common fasteners. It also leverages common USAF ground equipment and established suppliers to reduce supply chain complexity.

Like the T-50, Boeing’s aircraft also incorporates embedded, ground-based training—a major requirement for USAF. These systems include immersive flight simulators that allow a trainee in a virtual cockpit on the ground to synchronize with other trainees in simulators and even with other trainees flying in actual aircraft. This type of training is vital due to the need to provide student pilots with the skills and competencies required to transition into newer fighters with a relatively small number of available training and combat aircraft.

Additionally, “Government and industry must pursue a T-X system that essentially transforms pilot training to meet the requirements of combat aviation in an era of the information-infused ‘combat cloud,’” said Major General Lawrence A. Stutzriem, USAF (Ret.). New USAF aircraft and updated existing aircraft—and their pilots—need to fit into the U.S. military’s vision for the information age, where information-centric, interdependent, and functionally integrated units exchange and leverage data across multiple spectrums of the warzone (e.g., soldiers on the ground viewing imagery from high-flying reconnaissance aircraft, and then ordering munitions strikes from support aircraft far from the battlefield).

Several other companies have communicated that they may still compete for the T-X contract, including a partnership between Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) with a clean-sheet design—the Freedom Trainer—which is described as a lightweight, twin-engine, composite aircraft. The SNC/TAI team has yet to unveil a prototype.

Stavatti Aerospace also plans on competing for the T-X contract with its twin-engine, twin-tail Javelin aircraft, based off the Aviation Technology Group (ATG) Javelin Mk-30. In November 2016, Stavatti was granted an exclusive license from the now defunct ATG to develop the Javelin as an advanced jet trainer and very light fighter. Beyond bidding for the T-X contract, Stavatti also plans to market the Javelin to allied air forces.

Although Raytheon announced this past January that it was dropping out of a partnership with Italian firm Leonardo (formerly Alenia Aermacchi) due to an inability to “reach a business agreement;” Leonardo has not stated that it will drop out. This leaves the potential for it to bid its T-100 trainer; a design based on the twin-engine Alenia Aermacchi M-346, which has already proven itself as the trainer and light attack aircraft of choice for Israel, the United Arab Emerates, Singapore, Poland, and Italy.

On February 1, 2017, although having already designed, built, and tested a prototype trainer with Scaled Composites, BAE Systems, and L3 Technologies as partners, Northrop announced that they would not submit a proposal for the T-X competition. Washington-based analyst Jim McAleese suggested that Northrop may be positioning itself to protect its operating margins (currently 11%, based on fourth-quarter earnings reports) by not engaging in a price-shootout, especially after winning the USAF next-generation bomber  contract with a price-aggressive bid. 

Textron AirLand dropped out just this past March from the T-X competition with its Scorpion jet, also a clean-sheet design. In a statement, Textron Aviation stated, “The T-X program is seeking a class of aircraft with a set of capabilities focused on a very different mission than that of the Scorpion jet,” but that the company is pursuing other opportunities with the jet, including the OA-X program. The OA-X program is an “off-the-shelf” aircraft solution for providing close air support for U.S. military forces and supplementing the USAF A-10 fleet.

USAF officials have not set an award date for the T-X contract; however, the program is expected to begin in fiscal year 2017. The $16.3 billion T-X RFP includes all aspects of the system, including Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD), Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP), Full-Rate Production (FRP), and sustainment transition support. The RFP will lay the groundwork for delivery of the first five test aircraft with contract options for LRIP lots #1-2, and FRP of lots #3-11 for a total of 350 aircraft.

In addition, provisions are included for ground support systems, such as training systems, mission planning and processing systems, support equipment and spares.

Analysts forecast the total market potential for the new T-X aircraft could reach up to $50 billion.

USAF intends to have the new aircraft fully operational by 2024.

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