In Air Force Trainer Competition, Hopefuls Persist Despite Downbeat Forecast

By Sandra I. Erwin

Industry players continue to cast their lot in the U.S. Air Force training aircraft competition, even though the program is unlikely to be funded for several years.

Plans to replace aging T-38 aircraft used to train Air Force pilots have been in the works for about a decade, but the project remains in budgetary limbo.

Even as they face a big cloud of uncertainty, companies are lining up for a shot at the business.

The Boeing Co. announced last week it has teamed with Saab North America to compete for the new “T-X” trainer. They will be entering a crowded field with three other industry teams led byBAE Systems, General Dynamics Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Air Force officials have said over the past year that the estimated $16 billion T-X program has fallen into the “TBD” category, pending the resolution of the budget impasse in Washington and a decision on whether sequestration spending cuts will stay in place.

Lt. Gen. Charles R. Davis, military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told an industry conference last week that the 2015-2016 budget is literally a “zero sum” game that will require dollar-for-dollar trades in order to protect the top items on the service’s wish list. The service has identified the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46A refueling tanker and a new long-range strike bomber as its top three programs. T-X and a new aircraft to replace the JSTARS radar plane probably would be delayed to ensure there is enough funding for the top three.

In this budget environment, “new starts will be very limited,” Davis told defense industry investors at a conference in New York City hosted by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates.

One problem with T-X is that, under an earlier plan that would begin delivering airplanes in 2017, the program would create a funding crunch, as the Air Force would simultaneously be buying new C-130J cargo planes and begin ramping up production of the F-35A, Davis said.  “We are guilty as a department of being deficient in planning for the out-years,” he said.

The Air Force, like the other branches of the military, prepared two budget proposals this year. One was the president’s budget that was submitted to Congress in February, which exceeds congressionally mandated spending caps. The alternative budget was produced over the summer, and reflects sequestration levels, therefore funding fewer programs. “We'll see how that works out in the fiscal year 2015 budget,” Davis said. Now there is a prospect of a third budget that the White House Office of Management and Budget will discuss with defense officials next week. “Between Dec. 13 and 16, we expect OMB to give us another top line” that likely will be somewhere between the other two, Davis said.

The dubious status of T-X, however, is not deterring industry contenders. “There are several reasons to ‘jump in’ now,” said John A. Belanger, vice president of communications at Saab North America.

The apparent lack of funds notwithstanding, the program “represents a great opportunity,” he told National Defense in an email.

Competitors are not just looking to replace an aging aircraft but also to “position themselves to meet the training requirements of the future,” he said. “The U.S. Air Force T-X program will include aircraft and training that will be used to prepare our war fighters for the next 40 years.”

For some companies, it is worth the risk, Belanger said. “Saab will invest in development of this aircraft together with Boeing over the coming years.”

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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