T-X Jet Training System Competition Pits Old Aircraft Versus New

By Stew Magnuson

In a building near Washington’s Dulles Airport, BAE Systems houses a trailer it has been hauling to air shows all over the United States.

Inside is a suite of simulators for the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, a British built aircraft the company will be offering as a candidate to replace the Air Force’s aging T-38 trainers. More than 12,000 visitors have toured the mobile showcase, including 400 military officers, said Robert Wood, BAE’s T-X lead executive.

“Everything in the trailer is off the shelf and in use by the Royal Air Force today. ... There is nothing science fiction there. It is all current stuff,” Wood said, eager to point out that the Hawk and its training system are being actively used today and would require minimal development costs.

With so few new big-ticket military hardware programs in the pipeline, major contractors are gearing up for the acquisition of the next-generation T-X jet fighter trainer, and its supporting simulators. Partnerships have been formed, and the marketing has already begun even though the start date is unclear with the current budget crunch. Trainers are not among the most glamorous aviation programs, but with a planned buy of 350 aircraft along with the simulators, and an estimated cost of $11 billion to $17 billion over the contract’s lifetime — including sustainment costs — competition in these austere times will be keen.

One of the candidates will be BAE Systems with its updated version of the Hawk, a purpose-built trainer that has been in production since the 1970s. It has partnered with Northrop Grumman, which will do the manufacturing, and L-3 Link Simulation and Training.

Lockheed Martin will also be in the hunt. It is offering another off-the-shelf aircraft, the T-50, which it is building in South Korea with its manufacturing partner, Korean Aerospace Industries. Lockheed Martin formed the partnership to build trainers for the Korean air force in the 1990s with an eye toward a T-38 replacement program, said Mike Griswold, director of T-50 business development. 

“It has been a long time in coming,” he said. Budget concerns have pushed the program’s timeline to the right. The T-38s, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain as parts become obsolete.

Wood pointed out that the T-38 is four and half decades old and is the only aircraft in the Air Force inventory that has no completely funded replacement program.

Large, lumbering aircraft such as the B-52 bomber, along with lift and tankers may last longer, but this is a fighter with an airframe that has to withstand G-forces.

“The bottom line is: they have to replace the T-38,” Wood said. “So it is not just a question of ‘if,’ it is a question of ‘when.’”

The reason has more to do with the training gaps the Air Force has identified than obsolete parts and the structural integrity, both Wood and Griswold said.

“The T-38 is a remarkable airplane but it really was designed to train third-generation pilots starting with the F-4,” Griswold said. “It showed this amazing ability to adapt as training needs changed.” But the relatively new F-22 and the upcoming deployment for the F-35 will hasten the need for a trainer that can accommodate these fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, he added.

The F-22 and F-35 are single-seat aircraft. In the past, a pilot would come out of the training program and go into a two-seat F-16 or F-15, and receive additional operational training in a squadron. When an F-35 or F-22 pilot makes his or her first flight, it is solo, Griswold noted.

“That kind of raises the bar on what the training needs are now,” he added.

The Air Force has a list of about 12 training gaps that the T-38 can’t fill. Among the top needs are sensor management, air-to-air intercepts, sustained G-force, night vision training and air-to-air refueling.

The Air Force is currently going through its list to look at the cost benefit analysis of each of these shortfalls.

Night operations, aerial refueling and high G-force maneuvers will have to be taught in the training curriculum as opposed to the fighter squadron, which is the way it is done now because the third-generation fighters are two seaters, Griswold said.

“You can train at low speeds but combat happens at longer distances now at higher and higher speeds. It is important to be able to train at those speeds as well,” he said. Simulators can only provide so much. At some point, the trainee needs to experience the speed and acceleration in the air, he added.

In this regard, the T-50 has a leg up. It is the only potential entrant that can reach supersonic speeds at Mach 1.2.

The T-X will also have to duplicate the sophisticated electronics found in the next-generation fighters’ cockpits without actually having them installed.

Since it would be far too expensive to outfit the trainers with real radars, the T-X will be able to replicate bogies using GPS and communication links to show where another aircraft is flying, or indicate that an enemy fighter is approaching on the screen when in reality, there is nothing there. 

“Everything is going to be scrutinized for affordability nowadays,” Griswold said. For example, the off-the-shelf aircraft the two manufacturers are offering don’t allow for aerial refueling. That would have to be added. Whether the service wants to pay for that, or find a different way to simulate that skill, has yet to be determined. 

New training and simulation trends will also allow the Air Force to save funds. Combined live and virtual training concepts could allow one pilot to remain in a simulator, while another is actually in the air. 

The Air Force has indicated that the simulator and aircraft portions of the program will not be awarded separately. While BAE has teamed with L-3 link, Lockheed Martin will rely on its global training and logistics division.

“The T-X program is about the complete system and not just one or the other,” Griswold pointed out. Obviously there won’t be near as many simulators as the proposed 350 aircraft. The exact number of the ground-based systems needed will be determined by the Air Force, he said.

Both the aircraft and the simulators will have to be changeable. Just as the T-38 was over the years able to take on upgrades, so too must its replacement, Griswold said.

It will not only have to meet today’s requirements, but be able to adapt because it will be in service for 40 or 50 years. Open architecture and a flexible design for the simulator and the aircraft will be important.

“You’ve got to keep an eye on what are the current requirements of today as well as long term,” Griswold said.

The BAE and Lockheed Martin entrants have the advantage of both having aircraft in production. Korea Aerospace has produced 80 T-50s as of October.

There are nearly 1,000 Hawks being flown throughout the world dating back to its first iteration in the 1970s. The new T2mk128 models are being flown in 11 countries.

Wood pointed out that four nations will be flying the latest model as the lead-in trainer for the F-35: Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and the United States. Marine Corps and Navy pilots will use a variant for their F-35s.

Both BAE and Lockheed Martin executives said if they win the contract they will produce their trainers in the United States rather than the United Kingdom and South Korea respectively. Neither has announced a potential domestic factory location yet.

There are at least two other potential bidders, The Boeing Co. and Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi North America.

Boeing declined to offer an executive to interview, but a company spokesperson provided a statement:  “Over the past several years, Boeing has conducted extensive studies of both purpose-built and derivative platforms as well as many industry teaming approaches. Our analysis consistently indicates a purpose-built solution will provide the most affordable and effective solution to the Air Force’s advanced flight training requirements.”

The spokesperson declined a request for follow-up questions on how it reached its conclusion and how long it would take to develop a new trainer from scratch.

Alenia Aermacchi North America will be offering the T-100 Integrated Training System, according to its website. The trainer is based on its M-346, built in partnership with Russia’s Yak Aircraft Corp. Italy, Singapore and Israel have ordered a total of 57 aircraft, but they are still in production, according to company press releases. Officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

Wood said the program must get underway as soon as possible. There are ongoing upgrades to some T-38s that will extend some of them to 2026. A request for proposals is expected in late 2013 or early 2014. The goal would be to have the T-X flying by 2020 with all the T-38s replaced by 2026.

“Any idea of new development is going down a path fraught with high-risk, high cost and delay. Period,” Wood insisted, taking a not-too-subtle jab at Boeing. “Look at any program and ask how many have come in on cost, on schedule and on budget,” he added.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at The Teal Group, is bullish on the Italian’s M-346. The Hawk has been the king of the relatively small trainer/light-fighter market for decades, but the world is moving on and wants something new, he said.

Alenia Aermacchi’s new M-346 seems to be it, Aboulafia said.

He called the Hawk the “underdog” in the upcoming competition because of its decades-old design.

“It is conceivable that a 1970s design can be reborn again, it is just not likely,” he said.
As for Boeing’s plan to build a new aircraft, it has two choices: spend about $1 billion of its own internal research-and-development dollars, or hope the Air Force wants to foot the bill. It is unlikely Boeing’s board of directors or its shareholders would go for the former, and even less likely that the Air Force in the current budget climate would pay for the latter, he said.

As for the T-50, the question is whether the Air Force would want to pay a premium to acquire a supersonic trainer. It is more costly to buy and operate, he said.

“It’s a good plane, but it is expensive,” he added.

Alenia Aermacchi has reportedly been looking for a U.S. partner. Despite Boeing’s public statements, a marriage between the two might be on the horizon, Aboulafia predicted.

Correction: The original article misspelled Mike Griswold's name.

Graphic Source: The Teal Group

Topics: Aviation, Manufacturing

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