If all goes as planned, the T-38 Talon—stalwart of advanced pilot training since 1961—will be replaced starting in 2023 and depart the inventory for good in 2029. While it was once a good bet the next generation trainer would be derived from a foreign aircraft, there’s now a good chance it will be a brand-new, home-grown design aimed at a large and growing world pilot training market.
The Air Force issued its formal requirements for the T-X trainer in March, after years of on-again, off-again efforts to replace the graceful Talon. The T-38 was ahead of its time when it debuted as a supersonic trainer in 1961, but is now unable to deliver the performance USAF needs.
The T-38 can’t perform “12 of 18 tasks” required for advanced pilot training today, according to Brig. Gen. Dawn M. Dunlop, Air Education and Training Command’s director of plans, programs, and requirements. Developed in an era when the Air Force fielded “Century Series” second generation fighters such as the F-100 and was getting ready to introduce third generation F-4s, the T-38 is out of its element training pilots for fifth generation F-22s and F-35s, she said.
The tasks it can’t teach have to be learned at operational squadrons in frontline aircraft, at a far higher cost than USAF thinks would be the case with a new trainer. Those include managing various sensors in high-G turns and the ability to simulate release of modern weapons.
Moreover, despite several updates, the T-38 is increasingly maintenance-intensive, ready for duty less than 60 percent of the time vs. AETC’s standard of 75 percent, Dunlop said. Part of that is due to its age and growing obsolescence while some is due to the “vanishing vendor” syndrome: Parts are hard to get. Modern trainers in partner air forces have demonstrated “the ability to easily exceed 80 percent” mission readiness, she said, and this figure is a key performance parameter of the T-X. The jet is expected to fly about 360 hours a year.
The plan is to replace 431 T-38s with 350 T-Xs. That number of aircraft will support production of about 1,100 pilots per year “for the foreseeable future,” said Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Education and Training Command, in a February press conference. The figure does not, however, include replacing the T-38s used as companion trainers for several types of aircraft, such as the B-2 bomber, nor does it include “aggressor” dogfight exercise opponents or foreign military sales trainers—all missions performed now or at some point by the T-38.
Dunlop said requirements have been optimized for AETC’s advanced pilot training mission, but “we hope that we have designed enough margin and agility into our requirements … to allow growth for the next 20 years” both in pilot training and “future derivative mission sets” such as Red Air aggressors. She said USAF is confident the T-X will meet those training needs, should those aircraft also be replaced.
There was collaboration with all major commands that use companion trainers in developing T-X requirements, she noted. There is $40 million across the Future Years Defense Program in a separate account to accommodate additional development of T-X options.
Twice in the last five years, the Air Force conducted an analysis of alternatives to determine how it could affordably replace the venerable Talon and avoid yet another round of structural enhancements and avionics upgrades to extend its service life. The first AOA went stale after the service couldn’t find the money to fund the project. Now it’s in the Air Force’s 10-year plan—modestly at first, with about $12 million in each of the next two years. The figure swells to $262.8 million by Fiscal Year 2019 and $275.9 million the year after that. The Air Force expects to spend about $20 billion over 20 years to buy, fly, and maintain the T-X and its associated training system and simulators. In a February interview, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said the T-X is an “existential” need for the service.
“It’s time we do this,” he said. Funding remains precarious, however, as long as the threat of a return to sequestration haunts the Air Force budget.
Early in the AOA process it seemed likely that, to avoid development costs and get a trainer quickly enough to avoid another T-38 service life extension program, the Air Force would ask for an off-the-shelf design—i.e., an in-production aircraft that could be tweaked to USAF requirements at affordable cost.
American contractors quickly teamed up with foreign partners, aiming to offer a variety of jets already in service.
Northrop Grumman partnered with BAE Systems on yet another new variant of the venerable British Hawk that in one version serves in the US Navy as the T-45 and in many other countries as an advanced trainer.
Lockheed Martin teamed with Korean Aerospace Industries to offer the T-50 that Lockheed helped design. It resembles the Air Force’s F-16.
General Dynamics partnered with Alenia Aermacchi offering the M-346, renamed the T-100 for the USAF competition.
Driving Costs Down
Boeing said it would buck the trend and offer a “clean sheet” design, but it still joined up with Sweden’s Saab, presumably to base an aircraft on that company’s JAS-39 Gripen, touted as a low-cost, easy-to-maintain fighter.
Textron also aimed to enter its privately developed Scorpion, promoted as able to do a number of USAF jobs at a fraction of the cost of traditional types.
“I don’t know that there was ever a requirement to procure a nondevelopmental solution,” Dunlop said, but that’s how contractors interpreted the Air Force’s budgetary and time line needs. The release of requirements in March seemed to have shaped the competitive field, though, mostly because of the requirement for sustained 7.5Gs.
Dunlop explained that a pilot who can manage a modern cockpit under this level of G-forces can probably do so under a 9G turn as well—a capability of all USAF fighters except the A-10.
Likely because of the G-loading requirement, Northrop Grumman abandoned the Hawk, though it retains BAE as a partner, and will now pursue a clean-sheet design of its own. General Dynamics dropped the M-346 and had not by early April said if it would compete using another platform. Alenia may still offer the jet, alone or with another US partner, perhaps Raytheon. Lockheed Martin revealed in February that it had a clean-sheet design—prepared by its “Skunk Works” division—ready to go if the T-50 did not meet USAF’s needs. In April, the company declined to say if it was sticking with the T-50.
“Of course, there are some different risks” between a clean-sheet and a proven design, Dunlop said, “and we have to account for those in our source selection.”
No particular engine was specified, and the Air Force left it to the contractors whether to offer two engines or one. Afterburner is not required, nor is supersonic capability.
Dunlop said that there was “robust engagement” with potential contractors during the run-up to release of the requirements, done about 10 months earlier than is usually the case. The idea—part of Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’ “Bending the Cost Curve” initiative—is to give vendors as much of a head start as possible to work out the particulars and offer the most competitive possible package. The requirements were carefully winnowed to include only those deemed absolutely necessary, to avoid arbitrarily disqualifying any potential offerors.
Competition, Dunlop said, will ultimately drive the price lower and it will help ensure the capabilities needed.
There are about 100 requirements. Key among them, AETC officials said, are having a state-of-the-art simulator and associated training system. The Air Force wants high “visual acuity”—with the view in the simulator almost indistinguishable from a real-world scene—and the motion and physical cues of the simulator must also be of extremely high fidelity. This requirement grew, Dunlop said, out of extensive talks with industry about the art of the possible before requirements were formalized.
Easing The Transition
It was not originally a requirement that the T-X have a similar cockpit display as the single-panel flat-screen system in the F-35, but give-and-take with contractors convinced AETC that having something similar or identical would ease transition to the F-35, reduce unit costs by increasing volume, and simplify maintenance. It turned out to be “the lowest cost, most adaptable solution,” Dunlop admitted.
The new trainer must also be compatible with night vision goggles and other night vision devices and offer simulation of various sensors, data links, and the release of modern weapons.
Lockheed Skunk Works Vice President and General Manager Rob Weiss, in an April interview, said, “Given that the F-35 will be operated by our partner countries, clearly they have the same requirement” for a trainer. Consequently, the T-X market is far bigger than just the United States, he said. The company is looking at USAF’s requirements, “trying to develop insight into what the Air Force is really looking for, in terms of the capability and the timeliness of [initial operational capability] of the aircraft.”
Because T-X is now in competition, he—and others at other companies—declined to delve too deeply into what will be offered.
Like the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the Air Force almost certainly will impose a design-to-cost cap on the T-X, but has not yet stated that figure. It is also likely USAF will seek fixed pricing on the T-X, as it has with the LRS-B and KC-46 tanker.
The requirements released in March are not the last word. That will come when the final request for proposals is issued, at the end of Fiscal 2016, and there will be more discussions with industry in the meantime.
“We want their input” on whether threshold and objective requirements—acquisition-ese for minimum acceptable and preferred capability—are appropriate, given the capabilities available, Dunlop noted.
An award is planned for 2017, with first deliveries in 2023. Full operational capability is expected in 2031.