Beginning in 2003, the US Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC) set its sights on replacing the T-38 Advanced Jet Trainer. The T-38 first flew in 1959, and became operational in 1961. More than 1100 aircraft were built. The T-38 is still the Air Force’s advanced jet trainer for Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (JSUPT). The aircraft will probably remain in service through the early 2020s, giving it an operational life span of more than 60 years.
The combination of aging airframes, budget restrictions, and increasing demands of the JSUPT to train for 5th Generation fighters, has created delays and changing requirements for the next generation of advanced jet trainers.
The feeling within the industry is that the Air Force cannot put off developing a new trainer for much longer. Current projections suggest that the new trainer should be selected by 2019 or 2020, and operational by 2023 or 2024. The Air Force has indicated that the initial order will be for 350 aircraft, but multiple sources suggest production could reach 1,000 aircraft or more. There is also some suggestion of a fighter-attack or other variants.
In spite of the schedule uncertainty, five manufacturing teams are positioning to offer a solution to the Air Force’s requirements for its next generation advanced trainer—the T-X.
Boeing, partnering with the Swedish manufacturer, Saab, as recently as September of this year, rolled out its candidate for the T-X. Quoted in a Defense News article (Sep 13, 2016), Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, “Our T-X design features: twin tails, a modern design that allows better maneuverability than a single tailed aircraft, stadium seating that provides rear visibility to the instructor … and a maintenance friendly design. What you can’t see is the advanced design and manufacturing that went into this.”
Boeing also pointed out that this aircraft was “purpose-built” to meet the demanding requirements of the T-X program. While the Air Force requirements to not mention stealth or low-observability, many observers suggested that it’s appearance mimics design features of the F-22 and F-35.
Northrup Grumman Entry
Northrop Grumman is also working on a “clean-sheet design for its T-X trainer candidate. Observers have pointed out that their next-generation trainer somewhat resembles the T-38, which Northrop built in the 1960s. While few details have been release on its design, a flight test prototype has been built by Scaled Composites and has been undergoing high-speed taxi tests at that company’s facilities in Mojave, California. Flight test are expected later this year.
Initially, Northrop Grumman had planned to partner with BAE Systems to propose an advanced version of the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, but this was abandoned citing performance limitations.
Textron AirLand: Scorpion
Textron AirLand secretly built a prototype Scorpion at the Cessna plant in Wichita, Kansas facility in 2012, and it was first flown in 2013. The shoulder-wing aircraft is of all composite design, powered by two Honeywell TFE731 turbofan engines. It is suggested that Textron AirLand will offer some form of this aircraft design for the T-X. While this is a newly designed aircraft, its initial performance numbers do not seem to approach those anticipated for the T-X. For example, its maximum speed is 518 mph or .68 Mach, which is well below that required for the T-X.
T-X Trainers Based on Existing Aircraft
Lockheed Martin and Korea Airspace Industries: T-50
Lockheed Martin and Korea Airspace Industries (KAI) are teaming to offer a significantly advanced modified and upgraded and version of the KAI’s T-50. Lockheed Martin has already opened a training center in South Carolina for both final assembly of the T-50A and the ground based training system.
Although based on the T-50 airframe, the T-50A features a blended wing-fuselage with horizontal and vertical stabilizers. It is purpose-built to meet the training requirements of fifth-generation fighters such as F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
The T-50A is designed to offer fighter-like performance and characteristics to expedite pilot transition to 4th and 5th generation.
The T-50A is powered by a single General Electric F404 turbofan engine equipped with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) system.
Raytheon/Leonardo/Honeywell Aerospace: T-100
Raytheon/Leonardo/Honeywell Aerospace will propose the T-100 which they claim the twin Honeywell Aerospace F124 engines will deliver best-in-class, thrust-to-weight ratio representative of today’s 4th and 5th generation fighters. The T-100 will feature a modern heads-up display and a fully integrated helmet mounted-display designed to prepare pilots for the advanced avionics used advanced tactical fighters.
The T-100 is based on Leonardo’s (formerly Alenia Aermacchi) MB-346, an advanced trainer and light attack aircraft first flown in 2004 and introduced into service in Italy in 2015.
The finally competition may come down to a dogfight between brand new designs and adaptations of existing aircraft. New designs can focus entirely on the requirements for the new aircraft, but new designs are also subject to more growing pains. While existing designs start out with a proven aircraft design, the adaptations that are required to meet the new advanced performance goals can be challenging to back-fit into the existing airframe.
All of these competitors will propose complete training systems with ground trainers or simulators, training programs, and support facilities, providing the Air Force with a turn-key training system.
Assuming each of these aircraft can demonstrate Air Force performance goals, the selection will likely be determined by the lowest realistic lifetime cost of ownership.
Currently the T-X trainer does not appear in the DoD budget, but funding is expected to be requested in the next year or two, to get the competition and selection underway. It is unclear what affect the results of the 2016 Presidential elections will have on military budgets. Regardless of candidate claims, budget realities will certainly affect budgets and schedules.
T-X trainer selection could turn into a real dogfight.
I trained in the T-38 in 1970. It was a good airplane, and although advanced for a trainer at the time, it was still a mechanical, analog aircraft—round gauges and all. And even with upgrades to new electronic cockpits, it is still a T-38 chassis. The transition from the T-38 to an F-35 Lighting II is roughly equivalent to moving from a 1960s stock car to a modern Formula 1 racer. The T-X will provide sufficiently advanced piloting training and experience to allow pilots to transition to the F-22 or F-35 with far lower training costs.