T-X: Next Big USAF Aircraft Contest

By Ray Jaworowski, Senior Aerospace Analyst, Forecast International.

Now that the U.S. Air Force has awarded the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) contract to Northrop Grumman, and the inevitable protest of the award has been lodged, the service’s next big aircraft procurement program is the T-X.  The T-X effort involves acquisition of an advanced trainer to replace the Air Force’s fleet of some 447 Northrop T-38C trainers.

As is the T-38C, the T-X aircraft will be used for advanced training of fighter, attack, and bomber pilots.  Unlike the T-38C, the T-X aircraft will also be required to assume lead-in fighter training duties, due to the fact that neither the F-22 nor the F-35 are available in two-seat variants as were the F-15 and F-16.

Preliminary USAF plans call for procurement of 350 aircraft under the T-X program.  The sheer size of the acquisition has drawn interest from a number of companies eager to compete for the contract.  One of these companies is the Italian firm Alenia Aermacchi, which plans to bid the T-100, a version of its M-346 advanced jet trainer.

Partnering with a U.S. company is likely necessary for a non-U.S. firm to be successful in the T-X contest.  At one time, Alenia Aermacchi had been teamed with General Dynamics on its T-X bid but, in late 2014, the latter withdrew from the partnership.  Alenia Aermacchi hopes to find another U.S. firm to act as T-100 prime contractor, replacing General Dynamics.  Unconfirmed press reports indicate that Raytheon has been holding discussions with Alenia Aermacchi about filling the prime contractor role on the bid.

Northrop Grumman has partnered with BAE Systems to pursue the T-X contract.  The team intends to bid an all-new, clean-sheet design for the program, having abandoned in late 2014 its previous plans to propose a version of BAE’s Hawk 128 trainer.  Northrop Grumman will act as prime contractor on the bid.  A prototype of the new aircraft is being built by Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites.

Korea Aerospace Industries produces an advanced jet trainer called the T-50, on which the South Korean company is partnered with Lockheed Martin.  The two companies’ teaming arrangement extends to the T-X contest.  Should the T-50 be selected for the T-X contract, final assembly of aircraft for the program would occur in the U.S.  Major components, such as the wings and fuselage, would be produced in South Korea.

As a backup plan, Lockheed Martin is working on a clean-sheet T-X design that would be proposed if USAF requirements evolve to such an extent that the T-50 could be excluded.

Boeing and Saab signed an agreement in December 2013 to work together to pursue the T-X contract with a clean-sheet design.  The team is currently assembling a demonstrator aircraft.

Other contenders could emerge as well.  Textron AirLand, a joint venture of Textron Inc and AirLand Enterprises, had initially considered pursuing the T-X contract with a modified version of its new twin-engine Scorpion ISR/strike aircraft.  The firm later decided against proposing the Scorpion for the program though, believing that the aircraft does not match the T-X requirements.  Textron AirLand continues to be interested in the T-X program, and has floated the possibility of proposing a clean-sheet design.

Contract award for the T-X program is planned for the second half of 2017.  The program schedule calls for delivery of the first of six developmental flight test aircraft in late 2019, initial deliveries of production aircraft in the second half of 2022, and Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in late 2023.  These plans are heavily dependent on funding availability and prioritization, and delays are certainly possible.

Even in an era of constrained funding, though, the T-X effort is almost certain to proceed eventually.  Outright cancellation of the program is unlikely.  The Air Force’s T-38C fleet is beginning to encounter sustainability issues.  Plus, the service would prefer not to train pilots for its new F-22 and F-35 fighters on these older trainers.

The Air Force’s planned buy of 350 T-X trainers could be just the start for the selected aircraft and its manufacturers.  The service’s total acquisition could increase by as many as 200 aircraft should it decide that the winning design will also assume all or part of the specialized tanker/transport pilot training currently performed on Raytheon/Beech T-1As.  The Air Force has also shown some interest in acquiring aggressor and light attack versions of the winning T-X design.  Export sales are also a possibility, as the USAF imprimatur would make the T-X winner a very strong candidate on the advanced jet trainer market.


FI’s Military Aircraft Forecast provides full coverage of fixed-wing military aircraft families of all types in 45+ individual reports. Also included are four Market Segment Analyses offering thorough overviews on the Fighter, Military Transport, Military Fixed-Wing Trainer, and Special Mission Aircraft markets, including trend analysis, highlights, and computations of all competitors’ projected market shares.

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