New, clean-sheet military aircraft design beats upgrades to win US Air Force T-X contract

New, clean-sheet military aircraft design beats upgrades to win US Air Force T-X contract

Part 1 in a two-part series
Boeing won the long-running battle to provide a new jet trainer for the US Air Force T-X program. The search for a replacement for the 1960s era Northrop T-38 Talon, which was produced from 1961 in thousands as an advanced pilot trainer and developed alongside the very similar Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, has been underway for around two decades.
 
In the meantime, T-38s have been upgraded and refurbished many times in an effort to keep them relevant in the digital age – in which features such as glass cockpit systems, helmet sights also known as helmet-mounted displays (HMDs) or head-up displays (HUDs), and night-vision systems have become standard on front line combat aircraft. The T-38 has been a difficult act to follow as it introduced supersonic performance to the training role, and yet was easy to fly and control.

Boeing won the long-running battle to provide a new jet trainer for the US Air Force T-X program. The search for a replacement for the 1960s era Northrop T-38 Talon, which was produced from 1961 in thousands as an advanced pilot trainer and developed alongside the very similar Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, has been underway for around two decades.
 
While the USAF has been engaged in a continuous process to consider and evaluate possible replacements, the US Navy decided two decades ago to replace its own advanced jet trainers with the T-45 Goshawk, a naval version of the BAE Systems Hawk, which was built by Boeing in St. Louis. At various stages in this replacement saga, advanced versions of the Hawk were considered by the USAF, along with other possible contenders, including the Leonardo T-100 and Lockheed Martin KAI T-50, but other procurement priorities and evolving new capabilities always conspired to defeat attempts to find a new air force trainer – until now.
 
Boeing took a huge risk in partnership with Swedish defence manufacturer Saab to develop an all-new trainer design, exploiting Boeing’s expertise producing the F-18E Super Hornet fighter and Goshawk trainer and Saab’s success producing the Gripen lightweight supersonic fighter. The resulting T-X aircraft offering, which took the military aerospace market by surprise, included building two flight demonstrators. This proved to be the clincher, along with an unexpectedly low-cost proposal. It was a clear case of new technology, right across the board, winning over advanced bespoke versions of existing, very capable but aging, rival designs.
 
The resulting new aircraft incorporates the features that have been closely tailored to what the USAF has said it needs, yet has the potential also to meet an international market for replacement trainers as air forces add new fifth-generation combat aircraft to their inventories. There is clearly a need to keep training assets relevant to the rapidly-changing defense environments that are likely to emerge over the next 30 to 40 years.
 
Up until now it has been accepted as adequate and cost effective to upgrade existing trainers, but combat types such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 will require lead-in trainers that are much closer to operational needs and do not involve today’s huge jump from the fast-jet training platform to the combat cockpit.
 
Confirming the total training package format that has secured the $9.2 billion Boeing T-X contract is the fact that included are a large number of flight simulators that will be expected to provide a sizable proportion of the familiarization and handling preparation for next-generation pilots, who will be flying the T-X before graduating to their operational units.
 
The new aircraft was designed, developed, and flight tested by the Boeing/Saab partnership in a remarkably short timescale of under five years, and this proved the system’s design and its scope for repeatability in manufacturing and training capability. Saab has designed, built, and supplied the rear fuselage and will set up a manufacturing facility in the US following this selection.
 
“It is a direct result of our joint investment in developing a system centered on the unique requirements of the USAF and we expect the T-X to be a franchise program for much of this century,” Boeing Defense President and CEO Leanne Caret said on September 27. Saab CEO Hakan Buskhe added: “It is a major accomplishment of our partnership with Boeing and our joint team, and I look forward to delivering the first trainer to the Air Force.”
 

Read the second installment, "New design wins over upgrades for next US Air Force military jet trainer aircraft," by clicking here. 

 
Richard Gardner is an experienced public relations consultant, author, and editor, specializing in aerospace, defense, and transport as well as high-tech industry. Read more from Richard Gardner on SAE.org

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