An F-22 Raptor with the 95th Fighter Squadron flies in formation with a 2nd Fighter Training Squadron T-38 Talon as they return to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., following a training mission Aug. 8, 2017. The 2nd FTS routinely provides the 95th FS with air-to-air threat replication in support of F-22 combat and formal training. Tyndall has the largest contingent of F-22 Raptors in the world. USAF photo by Master Sergeant Burt Traynor/Released.
By year’s end, the Air Force expects to announce the winner of its T-X competition, aimed at replacing the venerable T-38 in the advanced pilot training role. With 350 aircraft and $16.3 billion on the line, the T-X has become one of the most attractive—and risky—contracts on USAF’s hefty slate of modernization projects.
It’s attractive because the contract would provide the winner with a steady, uncontroversial chunk of work for at least 15 years, with stable production running from about 2020 through 2034, and opportunities for follow-on support of aircraft, simulators, and courseware lasting many years beyond that. USAF may order additional lots of the aircraft for missions such as Aggressor and companion trainer—roles also filled by T-38s over the years—although the service warns that those potential follow-on buys aren’t part of the T-X program, may not materialize, and won’t be a factor in T-X evaluations.
There are no other large-run military fixed wing aircraft competitions on the books until the Navy’s F/A-XX and Air Force Penetrating Counterair (PCA) aircraft take shape—both at least a decade away—making T-X a doubly important must-win for airframe houses that want warm production lines in the 2020s.
The victor will have a significant edge in foreign advanced trainer competitions, likely able to offer a better price than other contractors due to economic order quantities and volume production. It would enjoy the prestige of being USAF’s choice—important because foreign customers know the Air Force’s blessing means parts and support for the jet and associated training systems will be available for decades.
Lockheed Martin officials estimate a market for up to 2,000 advanced trainers over the next 25 years, though others see a need for only 1,200 or so.
The T-X is risky, though, because while it was originally envisioned as a “best value” competition (and that is still the official USAF language), those vying for it say it has devolved into a “low price shootout,” shaving potential profits razor-thin. If problems emerge during development, under a firm fixed-price or fixed-price incentive contract, the winner would have to eat the cost of fixing them, potentially rendering the project a money loser. Boeing, for example, underbid the fixed-price KC-X tanker program and has so far absorbed well over a billion dollars in write-downs on it, though company officials insist it will be profitable in the long run.
Even two years ago, the Air Force was referring to the T-X as a $20 billion program, but the final request for proposal, released in December 2016, quoted a value of $16.3 billion. (Since the release of the RFP, Air Force officials have declined to comment on the T-X, because the program is “in source selection,” and any remarks could later be construed as an effort to sway the outcome.) Offerers must be judged to have presented a low- or moderate-risk plan for building the jets and training system.
A Competitor Bails Out
So steep was the reduction in the T-X’s contract value that one major contractor opted out of bidding once it saw the final RFP. Northrop Grumman is arguably the incumbent since it built the T-38 nearly 60 years ago—just over 1,100 jets were built over 13 years. The company declined to bid, despite having built and flown a prototype T-X aircraft.
By way of indirect explanation, CEO Wes Bush said in January the company prefers programs where “best value,” not price, is the key discriminator.
The Air Force accepted final offers on the T-X in April, but allowed contractors to continue offering flight test data on their designs through June. Since then, USAF has been evaluating the entries, although high-level approvals have had to wait for the appointment of key acquisition officials in the new administration. With many of the nominees for those key positions confirmed over the summer, the way was cleared for an award this
month or so, assuming Congress passes a defense bill.
The service won’t disclose the identities of companies that bid on the T-X, leaving it up to the companies themselves to discuss that information. Those announcing or confirming their participation include Boeing/Saab of Sweden, Leonardo of Italy, Lockheed Martin/Korean Aerospace Industries, Sierra Nevada/Turkish Aerospace Industries, and Stavatti Aerospace.
The Air Force’s final RFP said it could opt to buy as many as 473 jets and 120 ground-based training systems, but that is not the program baseline.
The T-38 needs replacement for a number of reasons. First, the aircraft is simply old. Though it’s still a sleek, modern-looking jet, the first T-38s were delivered in 1961, and some of the aircraft in the fleet have been through or will have undergone three service life extension programs, named Pacer Classic I to III. The modifications ranged from updated structures, including the air intakes and wings, to an updated cockpit.
The Air Force has contemplated further T-38 life extensions in lieu of a new airplane, but even rebuilding the airframes to essentially zero time wouldn’t solve the main problem: The T-38’s performance no longer matches the skills modern USAF fighter/bomber pilots must master. In fact, when the draft RFP was released in 2015, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) said the T-38 can’t teach 12 of 18 core skills the service wants for its advanced training graduates.
Over the years, learning those skills migrated to operational squadrons. With the T-X, USAF could bring those lessons back to basic flight school, saving hundreds of flying hours at frontline units and on operational assets needed for real-world contingencies.
What the T-X must have that the T-38 doesn’t is a modern cockpit that will make the transition to a fourth or fifth generation aircraft more seamless; the ability to sustain a 6.5G turn (though 7.5Gs is preferred); “embedded training,” which is the ability to simulate weapons releases and sensor operations in the cockpit; sharply better sustainability and maintainability; at least a 10 percent fuel economy improvement versus the T-38; and the ability to teach aerial refueling, among other requirements.
For years, the Air Force thought the best way to go about getting the T-X at an affordable price was to adapt something already flying—a modern trainer in service with another country. American companies were encouraged to partner with a foreign firm to offer an Americanized version of these off-the-shelf jets, to save substantially on the cost and time required to produce airplanes for the Air Force. The service had an ambitious timetable for buying, testing, and fielding the new jet, so purchasing the T-X wouldn’t pile unaffordably on top of other big-ticket acquisitions.
USAF made it a priority to keep open a running dialog with potential bidding companies on the art of the possible, so it didn’t ask for performance that would either unnecessarily rule out too many competitors or specify a capability that spiked the cost without adding comparable value.
Initially, most of the potential competitors took the off-the-shelf approach. For example, Northrop Grumman partnered with BAE Systems on a version of that company’s Hawk trainer, along with L-3; Lockheed paired with Korean Aerospace Industries, with whom it had collaborated to develop South Korea’s T-50 trainer; General Dynamics partnered with Alenia-Aermacchi (now Leonardo) on the M-346 Master, redubbed the T-100. Textron saw an opportunity for its self-funded Scorpion light jet. Boeing, seemingly going against the current, partnered with Saab of Sweden in 2013 to develop an all-new airplane for the T-X program and the world trainer competitions that would follow.
However, as the Air Force refined its requirements, some of those off-the-shelf aircraft couldn’t fit the bill. The Northrop team dropped the Hawk and decided to create its own clean-sheet design. Textron, which had intended the Scorpion as potential low-cost candidate for T-X, a Red Air platform, and other missions, such as light attack, finally decided it could not tweak the jet to USAF’s required T-X performance.
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The Contest Within
Lockheed had directed its Skunk Works advanced products division to pursue a Red Team approach. It developed a concept for a clean-sheet design, then compared the tailor-made aircraft with the T-50 to determine which was the more competitive platform when measured against USAF’s specs.
An adaptation of the T-50 “was the clear choice,” Skunk Works president Rob Weiss told Air Force Magazine in 2016. While “in some areas” the tailor-made airplane bested the T-50, “that was completely outweighed” by the cost advantages of offering an airplane that had already been through flight test and development, had flown hundreds of thousands of hours training thousands of pilots, and already had a production line and vendor base, he explained. With some modifications—notably the fitting of a dorsal spine that could make the T-50 air refuelable—Lockheed discarded the clean sheet and stuck with the T-50, rebranding it the T-50A.
Weiss acknowledged that the T-50, though designed for the Republic of Korea Air Force in the late 1990s, had been developed with the Air Force’s need for a T-38 replacement in mind.
“We thought the Air Force would get around to this a lot sooner,” Weiss allowed. The T-50 is flying with air forces in Korea, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, and Thailand. The stock T-50 will be upgraded with displays adapted directly from the F-35 (for which Lockheed is the prime contractor), embedded training systems, and a dorsal refueling spine—removable for those times the Air Force isn’t teaching air refueling and doesn’t want to carry around the extra weight. The T-50 has racked up over 100,000 hours of operational flight time and has trained thousands of pilots.
In fact, the T-50A is so low-risk—with the vast majority of testing to USAF standards already accomplished—“we could deliver operational capability two years earlier than the Air Force’s goal” of 2024, Weiss asserted. That’s a potential big cost saver for the Air Force because the service wouldn’t have to extend the service lives of as many T-38s to last until all the T-Xs are delivered.
Going with a new design would present the Air Force with “a substantial and unacceptable amount of concurrency” if the service wants to meet the stated timetable, Weiss stated.
The Korean version of the T-50 is available as a light strike jet called the FA-50, and the T-50A will retain capability for wing hardpoints. Weiss said the T-X will inevitably be “used for other training roles,” and it’s important that the capacity for those “be built in now, so you don’t need extensive modifications” later.
If Lockheed Martin wins the T-X, it will perform final assembly and checkout at its Greenville, S.C., facilities, where it is also moving F-16 production, from Fort Worth, Texas. A company spokeswoman acknowledged that the F-16 and T-50A are similar, and there is “some commonality” of parts between the two jets.
Boeing, partnered with the Swedish firm Saab, is offering a new, or clean- sheet design, that it insists deserves a fresh way of evaluation because it incorporates new ways of building aircraft. Its motto on T-X is, “Breaking the norm.”
When the company rolled out its new airplane in September 2016, Boeing Phantom Works president Darryl Davis said the jet had been tailored precisely to USAF’s requirements, incorporating additional lessons learned from other successful trainer aircraft. The Boeing/Saab airplane has staggered, or stadium, seating to give the backseater excellent forward visibility, and the jet’s twin tails give it more agility than a single tail and a handling experience more like the F-35 and F-22.
Bend It Like Boeing
“What you can’t see,” Davis said at the rollout, “is the advanced design and manufacturing that went into this.” Boeing developed advanced manufacturing techniques called Black Diamond, that make it possible to manufacture large sections of the aircraft as a single piece. That eliminates “a tremendous amount” of touch labor, he said, and the jet can even be built “without tools”—without the elaborate (and often expensive) framing jigs that hold the jet together while it’s being assembled. That translates into reduced time and cost in manufacturing, Davis said, adding that the fastener count on the Boeing/Saab jet would be far less than that of competitors, because of the use of “advanced adhesives.”
“We’re going to shatter the cost curve,” Davis said, a play on then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’ theme of “Bending the Cost Curve.”
Davis said the team’s ground-based training system, rather than “an afterthought,” was designed in tandem with the embedded systems on the jet, making for a “seamless” training experience. Boeing officials said Saab was brought in as a partner because of its reputation with the Gripen fighter, a world-class combat jet that nevertheless can be maintained in the field by personnel with only a few months of training due to its simplicity.
The landing gear on the Boeing airplane came from the F-16, part of the team’s effort to “reuse systems already proven” in other platforms—again, to save development and testing time. The jet would have a glass cockpit but not necessarily the same displays as in the F-35.
At a December 2016 company event, Boeing officials said their jet had gone from drawing board to first flight in just a year, underscoring Boeing’s skill at advanced design and fabrication. The company would perform final assembly and checkout at its St. Louis facility. Parts would be fabricated there, from among Boeing’s worldwide vendors, and by Saab in Sweden.
Both the Lockheed/KAI T-50A and Boeing/Saab T-X would be powered by a variant of the GE F404 engine. The Air Force already operates a similar engine in its B-2 bombers.
Even though Davis said the Boeing jet is tailored tightly to the T-X requirements, he allowed that it has some margins of performance above those stated by the Air Force, but “we’re not going to talk about details of what we can do above threshold requirements.”
The Master’s Partners
The Leonardo T-100—going by the nomenclature M-346 Master overseas—is a true off-the-shelf entrant in the T-X competition. Leonardo’s predecessor Finmeccanica at first partnered with General Dynamics to offer the jet, but GD withdrew from the partnership in 2015. The company then teamed with Raytheon, but that company bowed out in January, citing an inability to “reach a business agreement” with Leonardo “that is in the best interest of the US Air Force,” a Raytheon spokesman said.
Industry sources said at the time Raytheon felt Leonardo was not being aggressive in reducing costs enough to be competitive in the contest and that there was disagreement about meeting a goal of 70 percent US content.
Soon after, Leonardo said it would offer the T-100 with DRS, its US subsidiary, as the program lead. The Raytheon partnership had been seen as a strong factor in the T-100’s favor, as Raytheon is the prime contractor for both the T-1 Jayhawk and the T-6 Texan II, AETC’s other two jet trainers, and since Raytheon has long experience in flight training and courseware.
In announcing its partnership with Raytheon in February 2016, Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) officials touted the T-100 as an “affordable” and “proven” design and said they were taking a fresh look at the program and not continuing the work done on the training system with General Dynamics. When Leonardo announced it was going it alone on T-X after Raytheon’s withdrawal, it did not say whether it would start over on the courseware, although it has a training program operating in several countries.
Leonardo plans to assemble the T-100 in Moton, Ala., if it wins the contract. In its early days, the M-346 was a co-development with Yakovlev of Russia and bears a strong resemblance to that company’s Yak-130 trainer. The jet would be powered by two Honeywell F124-GA-200 turbofans.
Sierra Nevada partnered with Turkish Aerospace Industries in late 2016, forming Freedom Aircraft Ventures LLC to offer the Freedom Trainer, another new design, for the T-X competition. The twin-tailed aircraft would be powered by two Williams International FJ44-4M business-class turbofan engines. Company officials said the all-composite (i.e., nonmetal airframe) jet would be 30 percent more fuel efficient than the T-38. The jet is envisioned as a pure trainer, with no provision for other roles such as light attack.
Sierra Nevada is best known for satellite systems, electronic warfare, and special mission aircraft modifications, and the A-29 light attack aircraft. TAI has built hundreds of F-16s under license from Lockheed Martin and is a second source on the F-35 center fuselage.
Stavatti Aerospace of Eagen, Minn., announced in April that it had submitted two concepts for the T-X program shortly before the deadline. One is a forward-swept-wing design that the company claims can be produced at $20 million each. The other is a “reimagined” version of its one-off Javelin demonstrator, at a cost of $10 million each, powered by a Honeywell turbofan. The company called the jet an “homage” to the T-38. The Javelin design dates to 1998 and the sole example was stored in nonflying condition for many years.
To win the T-X, contractors will probably have to offer radical savings in production, operation, or development, and those who’ve announced their participation all seem to have fixed on a different aspect of that equation.
It remains to be seen what approach the Air Force finds most convincing.