USAF T-X Win Could Be Just the Start for New Boeing/Saab Aircraft

By Ray Jaworowski, Senior Aerospace Analyst, and Carter Palmer, Power Systems SpecialistForecast International.

On September 27, Boeing and Saab emerged as the winning team in the U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced jet trainer contest.  The Air Force chose the team’s all-new, clean-sheet aircraft to replace its fleet of some 444 Northrop T-38Cs.  The service awarded Boeing an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract, worth up to $9.2 billion, for the program.  The contract includes an initial delivery order, valued at $813.4 million, for five engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft and seven simulators.

Under current plans, the Air Force intends to purchase 351 T-X aircraft (including the five EMD aircraft) and 46 simulators.  Initial Operational Capability is scheduled to occur by 2024, with Full Operational Capability slated to happen by 2034.

Designed specifically for the T-X program, the new Boeing/Saab T-X aircraft features twin tails, a shoulder-mounted wing, and a single General Electric F404 turbofan engine.  Two examples of the new aircraft have already been produced.  The first of these made its initial flight in December 2016, followed by the second in April 2017.  Boeing intends to utilize these aircraft as two of the T-X program’s five EMD aircraft.  Both were assembled at Boeing’s facility in St. Louis, where the company also intends to assemble all future T-X aircraft.

Saab supplies the aft fuselage and other components and systems for the T-X aircraft.  The Swedish company intends to perform this work at a manufacturing facility that is to be established at a yet-to-be-determined location in the U.S.  Triumph Aerospace Structures also has a major role in the program, and is responsible for the aircraft’s wing, vertical tail, and horizontal tail structures.

The F404 engine that will equip the Boeing/Saab aircraft began life as the original powerplant for the twin-engine F/A-18 Hornet fighter.  In addition, the F404 powers the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 trainer, a variant of which had also competed for the T-X contract, and the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.

Derived from the F404, the improved F414 model is utilized on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (the current production version of the Hornet) as well as on Saab’s own Gripen E/F fighter.  F404 series engines have thus been proven through decades of service on various platforms in many conditions.

The only all-new design in the T-X competition, the Boeing/Saab aircraft was selected for the contract over two competitors.  Leonardo had proposed the T-100, a version of its M-346 advanced trainer.  Lockheed Martin and KAI jointly proposed the T-50A, a variant of KAI’s T-50.

The win by the Boeing/Saab team in the T-X contest capped off a very successful month of September for Boeing.  Earlier in the month, Boeing received a contract to develop and produce the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial refueler, and a team of Boeing and Leonardo was selected to provide the MH-139 helicopter (a variant of Leonardo’s AW139) to replace the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of UH-1N Hueys.

Cost appears to have been a major factor in the T-X contest.  In announcing the award, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pointed out that industry competition for the contract resulted in a multibillion-dollar cost savings.  The Air Force’s original cost estimate totaled $19.7 billion for 351 aircraft.  The Boeing contract enables the Air Force to purchase up to 475 aircraft for no more than $9.2 billion.

Indeed, though the Air Force currently plans to buy 351 T-X aircraft and 46 simulators, the contract with Boeing does allow the service to purchase as many as 475 aircraft and 120 simulators.  This provides the Air Force with considerable flexibility should its requirements change.  Thus, the USAF requirement for 351 aircraft to replace T-38Cs may well turn out to be just the beginning for the new Boeing/Saab T-X aircraft.

For one thing, the Air Force could opt to increase the size of its advanced trainer buy.  Another possibility would be for the service to acquire an aggressor or adversary version of the T-X aircraft.  Such a variant would assume the role of an enemy fighter during training exercises.

The T-X aircraft could also be selected to replace the U.S. Navy’s T-45 Goshawk trainers.  The Navy has a fleet of nearly 200 T-45s.

And, with its USAF imprimatur, the Boeing/Saab T-X aircraft will be a formidable contender for sales on the global advanced jet trainer market.  In addition, the T-X design could also be adapted for use as a light fighter or light attack aircraft, thus opening up that portion of the military aircraft market to it as well.

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